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Taking measures to combat human trafficking has become a major cause for federal and provincial governments in Canada in recent years. And who could be against this? Nobody wants to see vulnerable people exploited for the profit of others. Yet as recent work by Dr Katrin Roots illustrates, the reality of prosecuting human trafficking in Canada is very far from the image conveyed by government press releases, and is often mired in old stereotypes around gender, race and vulnerability.
Roots studied human trafficking cases brought in Ontario between 2005 and 2016, a period when this offense was redefined several times, with new laws added, penalties toughened, and new enforcement measures taken. Her doctoral thesis at York University places these developments in a historical and international context that allows us to understand them more fully. This post examines the background to these laws; a future post will look at how they actually operate, also based on Roots’ work.
Human trafficking laws embody long-standing beliefs about race and crime
At the local level, ‘criminal justice authorities remain guided by the historically longstanding aim to protect women and children from the threats of physical and sexual assault, particularly in relation to the sex trade. These motivations are fueled by systemic race, class, gender and age biases that emphasize the need to protect some women, and in particular White, middle class women, often captured by the image of ‘the girl next door’, while punishing and criminalizing all others’. Particular urgency is added through the historical narrative that the exploitation of these White women takes place at the hands of racialized and especially Black men.
Such concerns are not new as ‘a wave of fears over ‘white slavery’ – the historical version of human trafficking – also took place at the beginning of the 20th century and bears a striking resemblance to the current’ panic around human trafficking, leading to enactment of new criminal penalties.
Definition of human trafficking driven by anti-sex work focus
One of the fascinating aspects of Roots’ study is to show how the understanding of human trafficking as set out by the United Nations’ Trafficking Protocol (2000) has been transformed through the process of translating international laws into domestic legislation and in response to pressures from the United States, to be focused almost entirely on sex work. The original UN approach to human trafficking included aspects such as ‘labour trafficking, trafficking for organ harvesting and debt bondage with a focus on migrant exploitation’…
‘The US has effectively replaced the standards of trafficking set out by the UN with its own and in the process shaped a distinctly anti-sex work enforcement approach, pressing on other nations to criminalize and abolish the sex trade’. The US has threatened sanctions against other countries that do not adopt a similar approach to an extent that they consider sufficient. It has regularly criticized Canada for what the US considers inadequate enforcement in this area.
‘The pressure placed by the US Department of State cannot be underestimated and is at least partly responsible for the increased attention to anti-trafficking efforts and strategies in Canada, which continue to maintain a particular focus on criminalization and prosecution of sex trade related activities.’ Partly as a result of this pressure ‘the trafficking provisions within the Criminal Code [of Canada], initially enacted in 2005, have been amended five times, each time expanding the definition of trafficking in a way that allows for a wider range of activities to be categorized under the term, while also increasing penalties for the various new offences’. Meanwhile other aspects of trafficking that were in the UN definition, such as trafficking people for their labour – sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions – are largely ignored.
Most effort is about more law enforcement around sex work
In Canada both the federal government and many provincial governments have made repeated announcements in recent years about steps they are taking to combat human trafficking. As with many other social problems, such as homelessness, much of the focus is on law enforcement rather than on the social services and supports that might prevent the problem in the first place. Not only have new criminal offenses being created with harsher penalties, but new public money has supported new dedicated police units focused on this area as well as new crown prosecutors to pursue the charges.
‘In the context of such pressures placed on anti-trafficking police and Crown attorneys to increase arrest and prosecution rates of trafficking cases and in the absence of transnational trafficking cases (Ferguson 2012), criminal justice and legal actors have taken aim at the all-too-familiar target – the domestic sex trade industry’. While exploitation can take place in any employment areas, ‘anti-trafficking approaches focus almost exclusively on victimization of women and girls working in the sex trade’. However, despite the new laws and policies, increased funds and police attention on the issue, relatively few of the charges are resulting in convictions.
In a future post we will look at Dr Roots’ analysis of the legal process around trafficking and the many problems arising from it.