Human Trafficking: The Elephant in the Room


This is the second instalment in our STAY Magazine series on human trafficking. This segment is focused on Canadian hoteliers and hotel employees and why they feel it is imperative to remain vigilant, outspoken and educated about this criminal activity that too often takes place in or around hospitality businesses.

Read the full FALL 2023 issue of STAY Magazine.

If you think someone is a victim of human trafficking, call the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010, 9-1-1, or your local police.

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IRWIN PRINCE STOOD ON STAGE AT THE CANADIAN HOTEL INVESTMENT CONFERENCE (CHIC) EARLIER THIS YEAR and he used the time allotted to him, during which he might have talked about his business interests, to instead discuss human trafficking. As a media professional, this stood out to me.

I subsequently spoke with Prince, president and chief operating officer at Realstar Hospitality—the master franchisor of Days Inn, Motel 6 and Studio 6 brands in Canada—about his advocacy and work to prevent human trafficking and advice for other Canadian hoteliers.

When Prince greeted me on the phone, he prefaced his responses to my interview questions with the following: “I don't profess to be an expert in this area. I’m just passionately engaged and involved and think that hospitality has a role to play in eliminating human trafficking from at least the rooms that we have control over. So, there are probably people that are more qualified to talk to you,” he suggested.

I have great respect for his concern and I understand he is not an expert. I assured him that we are connected with experts on this topic in Canada, and some of the recent data follow this series of interviews. Where I’d argue Prince is an expert—it’s in the business of hotels. That he felt there was no better opportunity—than a room filled with Canadian hotel industry leaders—to address this elephant in the room speaks to his principles and leadership, and his humanity.

Prince explains that talking about something as heavy and important as human trafficking isn’t actually dissimilar to discussing a problem like bedbugs. When he is talking at a conference like CHIC about a very uncomfortable topic (maybe it’s first thing in the morning and it’s a topic that's unpleasant to acknowledge), analogizing it can be helpful and engage the audience around building awareness.

So, he tells me about bedbugs. “Nobody wants to admit they have bedbugs, but bedbugs happen and it doesn’t matter if it is a six-star hotel or a one-star hotel, they come in uninvited on somebody's luggage,” says Prince. “Of course, nobody wants to talk about it or admit that this happens in their hotel, it's all very quiet and hushed. You call an expert company to come in and take care of it and you hope that guests don’t see it and the problem goes away.”

Bedbugs are an elephant in the room that we can handle without drawing too much attention in the industry. But, according to Prince, human trafficking demands that we not only draw it into the light by acknowledging it happens but that we openly take responsibility for preventing it in the industry.

He believes that we should not shy away from talking about it and that we have to share resources and information, as well as training hotel employees on what to do. “It's not rocket science, it takes time, attention and consistent awareness. We aggressively rolled out a program for all of our associates in every Days Inn, Motel 6 and Studio 6 across the country,” explains Prince.

He wants everyone in the industry to be able to openly talk about difficult subjects like human trafficking. Human trafficking can happen anywhere, in any kind of hotel, too. And it does. And so Prince has taken the opportunity to raise this important topic at industry events over the past several years.

According to a report from the U.S.-based Polaris, 75 per cent of U.S.-based human trafficking survivors report having some contact with a hotel or motel during their trafficking experience. This number stresses the fact that the hospitality industry, which includes hotels and motels, but also businesses like casinos, amusement parks, cruises and other tourism-related events, is a known sector for both sex and labour trafficking activity.

Prince says his awareness of human trafficking has grown over many years, as has his knowledge about ways that franchisees can play a role in proactively addressing this issue, contributing to its prevention.

“The telltale signs are different for folks that work at the front desk than they are for folks that work cleaning rooms. And it's just a little bit of education. We partnered with a Seattle-based organization called BEST, which stands for Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking,” says Prince.

BEST helps organizations through employee training, consulting, and survivor empowerment. Prince says he met the folks at BEST at a conference where he sat in on a training session. He thought they had a very straightforward, easy-to-understand message that Realstar could use.

Realstar team members took the BEST training, and then translated English educational materials into French as well, and distributed the information to hotel employees across its network. “You need to know what to look for. You need to know what to do if human trafficking is suspected, it's such an ugly crime and we know that it happens more in urban centres than in secondary markets. But it's not just sex trafficking, it's also labour trafficking that happens in certain markets,” says Prince.

He wants hotel employees to understand what to be on the lookout for—“tells” that could suggest a problem. And then, he says, in the training they work on really belabouring the point. Prince hopes that the three minutes he uses to talk about human trafficking at industry conferences such as CHIC and the Western Canada Lodging Conference (WCLC) results in reaching three or four more people each time—decision-makers who will take that message back to their hotel partners, asset managers and hotel managers and they will then educate every associate at every hotel they are associated with. "We are in the hospitality business. If you see something that doesn't look quite right that you suspect may not be what it presents itself to be, there are things that you can do, people you should report it to, and steps to take. Building strong relationships with local police departments and having an officer to call when you've got a question or concern goes a long way,” says Prince. He would much rather make a difference, he concludes, than hope or pretend that human trafficking doesn't happen in or around our industry.

Irwin Price

Irwin Prince


According to the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking (CCTEHT), the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline has identified 1,500 human trafficking cases since its launch in May 2019. Newly released data show that the number of cases has fluctuated between 251 and 460 cases per year. During this time, the Hotline supported 2,170 victims and survivors of human trafficking. Victims/survivors comprised the primary group of callers—approximately 37 per cent—reaching out to the hotline’s person-centred, confidential service.

While human trafficking happens everywhere in Canada, most trafficking situations disclosed to the hotline occurred in large urban centres with populations over 100,000 people. Approximately 13 per cent of reported trafficking cases occurred in municipalities with smaller populations. The majority of trafficking incidents disclosed to the Hotline took place in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec.

Other findings include:

• The hotline received a total of 12,706 calls and identified 1,500 human trafficking cases between 2019-2022. Call volume has steadily increased year over year.

• Hotline staff provided over 1,400 program and service referrals related to a trafficking case.

• Shelter/housing support was in greatest demand among human trafficking victims and survivors who contacted the Hotline. Case management and supportive counselling were also highly requested in human trafficking situations.

• Sex and labour trafficking were the most common forms of human trafficking in Canada (1,029 cases of sex trafficking and 88 cases of labour trafficking were disclosed). Labour trafficking is likely under-reported in Canada.

While the hotline doesn’t collect demographic data on all callers, the CCTEHT knows that historically marginalized communities are underrepresented in the data, including Indigenous peoples, members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, Black people, and migrant workers. The data are solely based on the information voluntarily provided by the callers.

The data also confirm that victims/survivors depend on social services to heal from human trafficking and other traumas. Hotline staff faced challenges connecting victims and survivors with appropriate support services. Decades of insufficient funding of critical services such as housing—combined with the pressures that Covid-19 placed on Canada’s social safety net—have left service providers struggling to support our country’s at-risk and marginalized populations. What’s more, survivors in rural, northern and remote regions often do not have equal access to services that are vital to their recovery. Additional federal, provincial and municipal investments are desperately needed.

“While only a subset of all human trafficking cases in Canada was captured in our data, we are seeing clear trends occurring across the country,” said Julia Drydyk, executive director, the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. “For example, existing services are not enough to help those who come forward and exit their trafficking situation. Healing from trafficking trauma is a complex and difficult journey. Increasing the capacity of front-line organizations to serve victims and survivors of human trafficking can guarantee that no one is left behind. Victims and survivors of human trafficking should have immediate access to the supports they need, regardless of where they are in Canada.”


Information contained in this article was provided by the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and Statistics Canada. Special thanks to Irwin Prince for his candour and advocacy.

Read PART ONE in our series: Eyes Wide Open

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