Women's rights

Sex Trafficking in Canada

Trafficking in Canada poster (cropped)

Human trafficking is the fastest growing industry criminal industry in the world. The International Labour Organization estimates that criminals make a profit of almost US$ 32 billion per year from trafficking, mainly from sexual exploitation.

Although trafficking is commonly identified with Asia or Eastern Europe, the domestic aspect of the problem is mostly absent from current discourses on sex trafficking in Canada. Up to 60% of prostituted women are aboriginal girls, and more than 75% of aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused. Since 1980, over 500 aboriginal women have disappeared, presumably murdered or involved in sexual exploitation.

Anupriya Sethi is a researcher who has focused on this violence and exploitation. She says that poverty, unemployment and a history of colonization have made aboriginal girls particularly vulnerable to traffickers. The destruction of social and cultural structures brought increased violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse and suicide.

Desperate for employment and acceptance, the girls are often trafficked across provincial borders, particularly from Saskatchewan to Alberta because of the increased demand that came with oil and mining, and to urban centers like Vancouver and Montreal.

Caterina A. Ferlaino, a spokesperson for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says that government response has been plagued by discriminatory sentiments toward aboriginal people and the view that sex trafficking is an international issue, not a domestic one. There is no national strategy on the issue, and the investigation and prosecution of traffickers are the responsibility of provincial governments.

Victim services have improved, but not enough

Some services available to victims have improved. Those from outside Canada can get temporary resident permits regardless of whether or not they testify against their traffickers. However, Sethi says that the long waiting period in service provision and the lack of consistent long term funding are key problems for victims support, and they can’t stay in rehabilitation centers for sufficiently long periods of time. Once the girls are forced to leave, they often fall back into the hands of their traffickers.

Ferlaino confirmed the trend is similar in Manitoba. “When we talk about victim services, we don’t have enough of that in Manitoba,” she says. “There is a need to put pressure on provinces to increase dollars and support for victim services.”

Francois Crepeau, a McGill Faculty of Law Professor, says this is not a priority for policy makers. “Victim services are expensive and we’re talking about damaged goods, girls who are the bottom of the heap in terms of social scale.”

An additional difficulty is that there are often other issues such as a history of violence and/or drug or alcohol abuse which must be addressed along with the trauma caused by trafficking itself.

Ferlaino says that Manitoba’s initiative to prevent human trafficking and sexual exploitation of First Nations people takes into account these root causes and addresses the issue in a holistic way. The province has recognized that the issue is not just rooted in prostitution but in sexual exploitation. The sexual abuse of aboriginal children is a big problem in Winnipeg, and Manitoba has developed an awareness and education strategy specific to First Nations.

Minimal legislation and enforcement

While services have improved, the same cannot be said of the legislation addressing trafficking or the prosecution of human traffickers. Human trafficking has been a criminal activity under Canadian law since 2006, and in 2010 MP Joy Smith’s private member’s bill requiring a minimum sentence of five years for those convicted of trafficking of children became law. This law does not extend to adults, and legislation addressing trafficking remains minimal.

Michelle Brock of Hope for the Sold, an NGO that fights human trafficking, gave examples of weaknesses in legislation and sentencing.

Montreal resident Michael Lennox Mark exploited a 17-year old girl for two years, selling her for sex. Sentenced to two years in jail, he received double credit for the year he served during his trial and spent only a week in jail after sentencing.

Imani Nakpangi, the first person in Canada convicted of human trafficking, received a three-year sentence for trafficking and exploiting a minor for two years. With double credit for time jailed during his trial, like Mark he will spend less time serving his sentence than the girl spent as his victim.

Ferlaino says that to better establish precedents and strengthen the law, more victims need to come forward. Unfortunately, most victims never testify, fearing retribution from their traffickers or because they a lack of awareness of their options. “Nobody will come forward until there is a forum to do so; people need to realize what’s happened to them.”
In addition, crown prosecutors need to be educated about the issue in order to identify it in court and applying the appropriate law. Traffickers are most often only convicted of purchasing sex, money laundering or drug dealing.

In a city like Montreal, there is only a minimal amount of investigation into sex trafficking, with raids on brothels being a rare occurrence. Information on traffickers is mostly obtained when police investigate other gang-related activities.


There is disagreement about the issue of prostitution and what legalization would mean for trafficking.
“Prostitution in itself is not wrong or good, it’s a human activity,” Professor Crepeau said. “People have the right to do what they want with their body. If you consider a prostitute as a human being having rights and agency, you will tackle this very differently than if you consider her a victim who doesn’t have the agency of deciding.”

Professor Crepeau argues that the legalization of prostitution would free time and money for law enforcement to go after the more serious issues such as hard drugs and violence.
Brock argues that the opposite will happen, and that the sex industry would grow drastically due to increased demand. This would lead to an increase in the number of trafficked girls and challenges for police. “Finding trafficked girls in the midst of legalized prostitution is a nightmare,” she said.

Professor Rebecca Whisnant, an educator and author on feminism, trafficking and pornography, agrees that legalization makes pimping more lucrative. “Because of sky-rocketing demand, and legally risk free, it creates a magnet for traffickers, while making it nearly impossible to prosecute them successfully. Legalization treats pimps as legitimate employers and johns as legitimate consumers,” she said.

Despite their differences, everyone contacted for this article agrees on one point. “Among all the turmoil caused by anti-prostitution debates, the issue of sex trafficking victims has not come out on top,” as Professor Crepeau put it. “There are much bigger political agendas fighting against each other.”

Next steps

There is general agreement is that sex trafficking in Canada should be addressed by a National Action Plan. The Trafficking in Persons Report, issued by the United States Department of State in 2010, suggested that Canada “intensify efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offense” using “proactive law enforcement techniques”. It also recommended that Canada “strengthen coordination among national and provincial governments on law enforcement and victim services and improve data collection,” issues that could be addressed by the implementation of a national strategy.

Despite the lack of a national strategy, some steps have been taken. The RCMP began to address the issue in 2006, establishing the National Human Trafficking Coordination Centre at its headquarters in Ottawa, staffed with RCMP officers and a civilian analyst. It also has six regional “human trafficking awareness coordinators” across the country.

The RCMP and other police agencies organized Canada’s first national conference on human trafficking in March, 2011. Information on police efforts in human trafficking can be found in the RCMP web site, www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca, under “programs.”

Carina Antczak