Ontario has launched a $72-million strategy to fight human trafficking, which too often forces young girls into the sex trade. Photo by Michael Swan

Getting at trafficking’s root causes

  • July 23, 2016

TORONTO – It’s not the oldest profession. It’s age-old oppression.

The vast majority of human trafficking — the Ontario government estimates about 70 per cent — is in service of the sex trade. There may be prostitutes who freely choose their profession, but not many. In his 2009 book The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, journalist Victor Malarek estimates more than 90 per cent of prostitutes would rather be doing anything else.

Covenant House in downtown Toronto has been helping girls exit the trade for years. What it has discovered is that 90 per cent of sex trafficking victims are female, the average age when they are first trafficked is 17 and Covenant House has dealt with girls who have been trafficked as young as 13.

Social media from WhatsApp to Instagram to Facebook are the new tools of pimps, who can make an easy $250,000 a year from just one girl.

Given their long experience at the frontlines, it was no surprise when Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne chose Covenant House as the place to announce a $72-million strategy to fight human trafficking on June 30.

Ontario is where most human trafficking in Canada happens, accounting for roughly 65 per cent of police-reported cases. In Toronto in 2015, police laid 463 human trafficking charges — up from 365 in 2014. Globally, trafficking in people is a $41-billion-a-year business, according to the United Nations.

The new provincial plan will put money in the hands of police and prosecutors to “support effective intelligence-gathering and identification, investigation and prosecution.” It will set up an anti-human trafficking co-ordination office that will get police, hospitals, social workers, schools and children’s aid agencies all working together. Things like housing, mental health services, trauma counselling and job training will be made available to survivors.

It’s an approach that has the Faith Alliance to End Human Trafficking celebrating. For years the alliance, co-ordinated and run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, has been lobbying the province to take a more holistic approach to something that’s too often been treated as a police matter — an inevitable neighbourhood nuisance like graffiti and litter.

In January the Faith Alliance met with Wynne and delivered more than 4,000 postcards signed by people who had visited its GIFT Box display at the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games in Toronto. GIFT stands for the United Nations’ Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. The GIFT Box is a movable, walk-in display which aims to educate people about human trafficking.

Sisters of St. Joseph Toronto congregational leader Sr. Thérése Meunier congratulates Wynne for spending at least some of the money on prevention. Police, doctors, psychiatrists and others will naturally have to deal with the fallout after human trafficking has happened. But Meunier wants a plan that looks at root causes and tries to prevent the next girl from being trafficked.

“What really is causing of all these issues? Why is all of this happening in our society?” Meunier asks. “What we really want to ask is, ‘Why is society in a state of sin? Why are we in a situation that there is such a gap between those who have and those who do not?’ ”

It says something that Canada’s trafficked people are disproportionately First Nations, disproportionately poor. Rich, well-educated, well-connected people with options in life do not choose prostitution. They can’t be lured by a guy with a nice car who promises you can make money dancing.

By criminalizing the purchase of sex the 2014 Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act tried to address the demand side of the equation. When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2013 that the criminal code was making life more dangerous for street prostitutes, it gave the government an opportunity to look at the Swedish model, which views prostitutes as victims and their customers as criminals.

There’s a vigourous debate over whether police can choke off demand by charging johns with an offence that usually carries a $500 minimum fine for a summary conviction but could result in up to five years in jail. Calgary police point out that these days “90 to 95 per cent of prostitution occurs indoors, facilitated by the Internet.” Traditional police raids and sweeps aren’t going to do much.

Zachary Grant, interim program director for the Sisters of St. Joseph, believes getting to the root causes means starting long before the demand question.

“Regardless of whether there’s demand for the purchase of sex or not, we’re looking even before that at the structures that cause women who do not want to be in that work to end up in that work,” Grant said. “What are the situations that put people in vulnerability for deception, for exploitation and all the things that embody trafficking.”

Even if the vast majority of human trafficking in Canada is driven by the sex trade, Grant believes it’s wrong to concentrate exclusively on prostitution.

“There’s a huge invisibility of temporary foreign worker exploitation, domestic worker exploitation and migrant exploitation in Canada,” he said.

Covenant House does concentrate on the sex trade. It sees it as a direct threat to children and adolescents.

Before Wynne’s announcement Covenant House had already raised nearly $8 million with about $3 million coming from various levels of government for a campaign called “Just Like a Girl You Know.” When it reaches its $10-million goal, the money will fund 24/7 crisis intervention to victims of sex trafficking as well as court support, mentorship and life skills development to help them get a fresh start.

Covenant House’s private campaign now finds itself at the centre of the province’s plans.

“Their initiatives and ours are extensions of each other, so the efforts are complementary,” said Covenant House executive director Bruce Rivers in an e-mail. “This is a large, complex issue that is only gaining recognition now, so there is still lots to be done.”

Two Just Like a Girl You Know crisis beds and programs will operate out of a house Covenant House is renting from Toronto Community Housing for $1 a year. The City of Toronto is renovating the house for free.

One of the things Covenant House has done for years is in-school presentations. More than warning the girls, the presentations “can help shape the views of young men,” said Rivers.

Facts about human trafficking 

  • o The United Nations’ Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) estimates that 2.5 million people world wide are in forced labour, including the sex trade, at any given time as a result of human trafficking, 270,000 of them in the industrialized West.
  • o A 2014 study by the Alliance Against Modern Slavery found 63 per cent of Ontario victims were Canadian citizens. They can be as young as 13, and their average age is 17.
  • o Globally between 75 per cent and 80 per cent of human trafficking is for sex, according to Alexis Aronowitz’s 2009 book Human Trafficking, Human Misery: The Global Trade in Human Beings. American researcher Benjamin Skinner, in his 2008 book A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery, estimates there are 27 million adults and 13 million children who are victims of human trafficking.
  • o Over a 30-year period more than 30 million children have been sexually exploited through human trafficking according to UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund).
  • o In 2014 police in Canada charged 121 individuals in 77 human trafficking cases. Four of those cases involved labour trafficking. Canada convicted 22 sex traffickers and no labour traffickers in 2014. The longest sentence handed out was 6.5 years. Police identified 216 victims in cases where trafficking-specific charges were laid. Of these, 213 were victims of sex trafficking; 85 were children.
  • o In 2005 the United Nations estimated the annual global profits from trafficked people was $41 billion (Can.).

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