Canada may not be the first country that comes to mind when the issue of human trafficking arises. However, a 2010 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police revealed that human trafficking is a prolific industry in Canada.
Canada Fights Human Trafficking, a Brantford-based advocacy group, reports that anywhere between 600-1200 people are illegally entered into the sex trade and into Canada annually.
A number of Canadians additionally worry that a September court decision in Ontario that proposed to decriminalize key elements of Canada’s prostitution laws could make Canada more of a hot spot for pimps and human traffickers.
That decision, ruled by Ontario Justice Susan Himel who sided with three former sex workers, stated that Canada’s prostitution laws were unconstitutional and should be struck down.
Trisha Baptie, a former sex worker who is now an abolitionist and heads Honour Consulting and Exploited Voices Now Educating (EVE) of British Columbia, fears that suggested change to the law would lead Ontario down a dangerous path of human trafficking and coercion.
“I can guarantee you that if these laws were to go through and Ontario had no criminal sanctions, if we envision that, I can tell you every trafficker, every pimp, and every bawdy house owner would pack it in and move to Ontario,” says Baptie.
Phil McColeman, the Member of Parliament for Brant who also sits on the Public Safety commission, also expresses concern that legalizing prostitution offers the potential for human trafficking to grow.
“If you agree to the situation where we have sort of a lawless industry developed, mainly bawdy houses, prostitution and all the things that go along with it, what you do is then you have a potential for the demand to be high and the supply having to meet that demand in which case human trafficking becomes a very, very lucrative business for criminals,” says McColeman.
Though Himel’s decision stated that the prostitution laws surrounding trafficking would not be affected, Baptie argues the points of Melissa Farley, an American feminist dedicated to the study of prostitution and human trafficking for Prostitution Research & Education, a not-for-profit organization that researches prostitution, pornography, and human trafficking.
Farley, who testified in the September trial, has written on the myth that legalizing prostitution has no effect on trafficking, arguing that the final destination for trafficked women is to places where prostitution is prevalent.
Christine Giancola, the Public Relations Director of Canada Fights Human Trafficking, argues the decision is a step backwards in a nation that already has a high demand for women.
“We at CFHT definitely believe that this is a terrible decision that the courts have made to legalize bawdy houses in Ontario,” says Giancola. “This will definitely lead to more sex trafficking and make it difficult to prosecute traffickers. Even now, many prostitutes are trafficked victims, who are forced by their pimp or trafficker to perform sex acts that they do not wish to.”
“Canada is essentially a destination and transit country for human trafficking, so we play a very big role and one of the reasons is there is a demand for it, there are buyers,” says Giancola. “Also, the fact that we have not been up to speed on prosecution and giving out harsh penalties, and there’s just no awareness, so traffickers like to come here because they can do it easily, they don’t get in trouble for it.”
However, the issue of human trafficking is broader than just women entering the country. Coercion of people already in Canada into the sex trade is also classified as a form of trafficking.
“Human trafficking, [by] definition, you do not have to actually transport someone from another country, coercion is actually in that,” says Giancola. “So in Canada pimps are traffickers, and our society needs to understand that.”
In the original decision, Himel sided with Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, and struck down the elements that made operating a common bawdy house or brothel, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, or living off of the avails of prostitution illegal.
The decision sparked national debate and was appealed by both the federal and provincial governments.
In December, Ontario Justice Marc Rosenberg sided with federal and provincial lawyers and ruled that no changes would be made to the prostitution laws while the landmark appeal is still ongoing. However, Rosenberg did set an April 29 deadline on his decision, at which point if the appeal has not been decided, a new decision will need to be made.
Though the trial sits cold, it did kick-start debates on human trafficking and abuse of women in prostitution, as well as allowed for discussion on alternatives to reduce the impact of prostitution. No answer has been agreed upon.
Joy Smith, a Conservative MP in Manitoba, suggested Canada follow the Swedish Model, an idea applauded by many Canadian feminists. The Swedish Model takes a different approach to ending prostitution, by criminalizing the person buying sex, not the one selling it. Anyone caught purchasing sex faces a fine as well as a possibility of up to six months imprisonment.
The rationale, outlined in the Regeringens Proposition of 1997, is that “it is unreasonable to also criminalize the one who, at least in most cases, is the weaker party who is exploited by others who want to satisfy their own sexual desires.”
Baptie agrees with this model. She argues that the Swedish model is a good solution to combat the abuse against women that comes with prostitution, explaining that the idea focuses on decriminalizing the actual sex worker and instead criminalizing the demand.
“We want to criminalize that whole demand, pimping, procuring, and trafficking, that’s what we want to see completely across the board decriminalized, because it errs on women’s equality, it errs on women’s safety, it errs on an egalitarian society,” Baptie said.
“What’s going to solve that problem is actually standing up to men and saying ‘You can’t buy my sister.’”
Claire Tremblay, an Ottawa lawyer who has worked with the Ad Hoc Coalition for Women’s Equality and Human Rights, notes that Sweden and the other Nordic countries that followed their lead saw a drop in human trafficking when they implemented these laws.
“They are seeing a close connection between prostitution and human trafficking but that there’s a blurring of the lines there,” Tremblay said. “And that there’s always some form of coercion, whether the woman has been psychologically damaged in the past, or because there is a financial need to prostitute oneself.”
According to Tremblay, following the implementation of the law in Sweden in 1999, there have been reductions in trafficking, demand for prostitution and even other organized crime related to prostitution. She notes that ten years after introducing their model, Sweden had 400 registered victims of human trafficking, while the Netherlands, who legalized prostitution in 2000, had twice as many.
Regardless, McColeman says that looking at the Swedish model has not yet been charged to the Public Safety commission, which is in charge of crime prevention in Canada, while the appeal is still in progress.
For now, the issue remains largely inevitable. But come the end of next month, it could open wide again.