Canadians’ role in online exploitation of children in the Philippines

Winnipeggers working with International Justice Mission Canada are calling on communities to better protect children, after studies show Canadians make up a big portion of people paying to watch children being abused online. Joanne Roberts reports.

Canadians working with the world’s largest anti-slavery organization are among those calling on governments and communities to take steps to better protect children from being exploited overseas.

One in 100 children in the Philippines were found to be trafficked online for sexual exploitation, according to a 2022 report by International Justice Mission Canada (IJM).

But what exactly is Canada’s role in sex crimes committed in a country more than 11,000 kilometres away?

Canada consistently ranks fourth in countries that pay to watch livestreams of children being abused in the Philippines, according to a study done by the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

“Online sexual exploitation is a cottage industry,” explained David Pollendine, the national director of development for IJM Canada. “It basically could be in anyone’s home across 7,000 islands. It’s much harder to find and to detect.

“When you look at Canada per capita as a country, we rank second just behind the U.S. So that was really shocking and something that we just couldn’t not look at and say, we’ve got a big responsibility here in Canada to do something about it.

“I think it has been seen as, that can’t be that common. That must be kind of, very kind of niche, and not here. But the reality of course, it’s the internet. Things spread.”

READ: Full “Scale of Harm” report from IJM Canada

IJM Scale of Harm Full Report by CityNewsToronto on Scribd

Marie Gravoso, a lawyer in Winnipeg who has worked with IJM, called the results of the study life-altering.

“For me, it was so heartbreaking to see so many victims,” said the former IJM Cebu legal intern. “During the time that I was an intern there, we were able to do some operations and we saved some children. It was heartbreaking for me to know that there were a lot of children who were suffering and most Filipinos wouldn’t even know about it.”

Gravoso immigrated from Laguna in the Philippines to Canada when she was 12 years old. She says during her time working at IJM, she re-examined her life back home, wondering how many children she used to know may have become victims of sexual exploitation.

Marie Gravoso, a lawyer in Winnipeg, says the experience of learning how involved Canada is in paying for online child exploitation was heartbreaking. (James Rinn, CityNews)

Gravoso explains Filipino culture is built on community, loyalty, reputation and, above all else, respect for elders. She says this is why many people don’t want to come forward.

“Some of the victims also felt that they would destroy their family, because family is very important. It’s central to the Philippines,” she explained.

IJM’s report included recommendations that have already been sent to the federal government.

They include calls for taking steps to develop online safety legislation and increase law enforcement resources to help them find perpetrators – already a very difficult task.

“It’s very hard to detect because it’s livestreamed,” Pollendine said. “In fact, the only way really to detect it is to actually catch somebody in Canada and then seize their computer, and then looking at IP address and digital forensics kind of thing, you can trace it to a place in the Philippines.

“This is not gonna go away. In every country where this is measured, it’s a problem. So basically, it’s in every country. The internet, there’s no borders.”

David Pollendine is the national director of development for IJM Canada, the largest anti-slavery organization in the world. (James Rinn, CityNews)

It’s why Pollendine and Gravoso are asking all Canadians – not just Filipinos – to raise awareness of the issue during Filipino Heritage Month by contacting local governments and grassroots organizations to see if they can help too. They’re also inviting Canadians to join them on a “virtual trip to the Philippines” where people can meet members of the IJM team and hear about the work they do first-hand.

“I think that every Canadian should be behind these recommendations,” Gravoso said. “Philippines is not an unknown third-world country anymore. Since we’re celebrating Filipino Heritage Month as well, we should all realize that Philippines is our next-door neighbour. Our co-worker. Our friends. It is home as well, to many Filipinos here in Canada and it’s something that everyone, not just Filipinos here in Canada, but every single person should really support these recommendations because it not only affects the Philippines, but it also affects us as a country.”

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