Five children under the age of 10 were rescued by police following a national child pornography investigation that targeted alleged sex offenders and resulted in hundreds of charges, the RCMP said Thursday.
Officers released the results of a four-month investigation into child exploitation that reached into every province, announcing in Halifax that more than 150 people have been arrested or are under investigation.
Sgt. Michael Petrilli said almost two million images and videos have been seized, with many involving infants and toddlers.
"I cannot stress enough what these images are and what they are not," he said at a new conference where he was flanked by about a dozen officers from 40 police agencies involved in the operation.
"These images are not simply children having a bubble bath. They are clearly children that are in a situation where they are being sexually assaulted."
Investigators said two of the children who have been rescued are from British Columbia, and the other three are from Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. They released few details about them, but said they all knew their alleged abusers and only some of them were involved in cases of alleged pornography production.
The 343 charges include sexual assault, luring, possession and distribution of child pornography and voyeurism. Petrilli said 104 people have been charged, but more charges are pending.
It's possible the investigation could move beyond Canada if it's found the material was sourced from or shared by people in other countries through Interpol or other police agencies.
"I would be shocked if there are not some international investigations stemming from arrests here in Canada," said Sgt. Darren Parisien, an RCMP member from Saskatoon who worked on the investigation.
He said most of the investigations resulted from police identifying possible offenders online, rather than receiving a complaint. That can involve an officer posing as a child or someone trying to acquire child porn.
"We just go to public places on the Internet and see who's there and very quickly we're almost overwhelmed with how brazen people are in their possession and distribution of these images," he said.
The RCMP wouldn't divulge the ages of the rescued children at the news conference, but Parisien said they were under the age of 10.
Parisien said the force is always trying to keep pace with technological advances that can allow predators to skirt detection, adding that investigators are becoming more skilled at using technology to more quickly categorize images and get them before the court.
"We're certainly just trying to catch up and keep up," he said. "We're just trying to stop the bleeding for the most part."
The latest seizure of material and subsequent arrests comes after two similar operations in 2012 that focused on the Prairies and northern regions, and in Atlantic Canada in 2013. Those resulted in the rescue of five children, 54 arrests and the seizure of millions of images.