A 28-year-old mother of three from St. Catharine’s, Ont., after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend, met a man on Facebook who promised her a rich and comfortable lifestyle if she would work as an escort at Private Genies in Toronto. As the Toronto Sun reported, the mother was inadvertently drawn into the world of sex trafficking with the promise of earning money to support her children. She finally called the police and escaped after the man got angry and decided to take her to a family associated with a biker gang.

Human trafficking, the use or trade of humans for forced labour or prostitution, is a disheartening concern in Canada. The United States State Department estimates that 800 people are trafficked to Canada per year and 1,500 to 2,200 are smuggled through the country on the way to the U.S. In its April 2009 report, Human Trafficking: A Report on Modern Day Slavery in Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada noted that human trafficking is the second most profitable crime in the world after the international drug trade. It is often linked to the sexual exploitation of women and children. The USSD further stated that “the 2006 UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children report to the UN concluded that prostitution was inextricably linked with human trafficking and to support prostitution is to inevitably support the trafficking of women and children.”

Lately, Canada has started to take a tougher stance against trafficking. Bill C-268, a private members bill introduced by Conservative MP Joy Smith (Kildonan-St. Paul), received royal assent on June 29, instating a minimum five-year sentence for trafficking minors in Canada. The previous human trafficking law, passed approximately five years ago, imposes a maximum sentence of 14 years for traffickers. Because there were no mandatory minimums, traffickers were handed lenient sentences. An example is Michael Lennox Mark, who was jailed for one week for trafficking a 17-year-old girl and procuring three others as prostitutes because his year of pre-custody time was counted as double. “We had hoped that when courts began sentencing child traffickers, they would recognize that as a very serious factor, but that has turned out not to be the case,” said Benjamin Perrin, a trafficking expert who helped draft Bill C-268, to the Toronto Sun.

On Sept. 7, Vic Toews, the Public Safety Minister, launched the Blue Blindfold Campaign along with the RCMP and the Crime Stoppers Association. The campaign aims to educate the public about human trafficking. “These images are disturbing and uncomfortable because this crime is disturbing and uncomfortable — and it needs to be stopped. By exposing the reality of this terrible crime to the light of day, Canadians can better recognize and report evidence of criminal activity,” said Toews.

The arrival of 492 Tamils on the shores of British Columbia on the MV Sun Sea claiming refugee status has also increased the momentum to stop human smuggling. Treaty obligations force Canada to accept any refugee claimants who arrive on Canadian shores. They are given full protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and cannot be detained unless they are criminals. The government suspects that the Tamil migrants had to pay exorbitant prices to be smuggled to Canada. On Sept. 6, after meeting with EU nations to discuss illegal migration, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced plans for tougher anti-smuggling laws when Parliament resumes in September such as minimum jail sentences. Human smuggling often forces migrants into human trafficking to pay off their debts.

To combat human trafficking, Joy Smith released a national action plan, Connecting the Dots: A Proposal for a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, on Sept. 15. One of the many recommendations in the plan advises looking into criminalizing prostitution. This would support the findings of the 2007 report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, which concluded that prostitution encourages trafficking and that prostitutes should be regarded as victims of exploitation instead of criminals. “… the Swedish government decided in 1999 to criminalize the act of purchasing sexual services to target the demand and not the act of selling sexual services. As such, prostitution is considered violence against the sex trade worker. The results have been impressive, with the rate of known human trafficking cases dropping significantly in comparison to neighbouring European countries,” writes Smith.

Smith also proposes to limit the international travel of child sex offenders, create a National Rapporteur for Human Trafficking, encourage more coordination between different agencies, review Canadian legislation against trafficking, monitor lone women migrants for six months, fund non-government organizations to provide care for victims, and counter forced or child labour in other countries.