“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
There is great work going on across the country to speak up and defend the rights for those who are being trafficked and exploited. For some, speaking up has meant asking the government (both federally and provincially) to “speak up” and dedicate resources to defend the rights of exploited children, women, and men.
For years, Ontario has lagged behind other provinces like Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia when it comes to having a coordinated, formalized action plan or designated funding. Two weeks ago, the Ontario government responded to those who have been advocating for a provincial response and announced a four-year anti-trafficking strategy.
With funding up to $72-million over four years, the emphasis of the announcement was placed on the importance of Indigenous-led approaches. This is key, especially considering that Indigenous women and girls are overrepresented in the sex trade. A new provincial anti-trafficking coordination centre will also be established, as well as a specialized prosecution team for human-trafficking crimes. The designation of a specialized prosecution team addresses the concerns that many in the broader Canadian Abolitionist community have had over recent years, especially since 2014 when the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36) was implemented. Many have been concerned that crucial actors in the justice system (e.g. Crown Attorneys and Judges) do not always exemplify a thorough understanding of the nuances of modern day slavery and the unique needs of trafficked victims. As such, “trafficking charges have resulted in few convictions” with the conviction rate at less than 10%.
While I am generally happy with the details of the announcement, there are two key concerns I have moving forward.
1. Funding for exit services, especially housing
In 2012, the federal government announced The National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. Beyond the fact that many lamented that the funding was way too low ($25 million over five years), how the money was divided amongst intended purposes was highly critiqued, especially by those who worked directly with victims and survivors. Through this Plan, $500,000 was specifically designated for services that would benefit victims. $500,000! To serve organizations across the entire country. Over five years. Instead, most of the money was intended for training, in particular the training of law enforcement. Don’t get me wrong – it is crucial to train law enforcement to identify and respond to human trafficking! But organizations who worked directly with victims and survivors were already incredibly underfunded and under a lot of financial strain. The outcome? Police officers became highly competent in identifying and reaching out to victims (and they did!), but then there were few services who had the financial ability to adequately address the incredibly complex and varied needs of these survivors. Housing in particular – especially ones that offer trauma-informed, long-term programming specific to victims of trafficking – is one of the biggest needs that survivors face. That is why I sit on the Board of Directors for Restorations, a charity working to open a longterm home in southern Ontario for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.
How the $72 million from the province of Ontario will be spent has not yet been specified. But I certainly hope that the province has learned from some of the pitfalls of the National Action Plan.
2. Language around trafficking and the sex trade
Being a provincial plan to fight “human trafficking,” it is implied that this strategy will address not just sex trafficking, but labour trafficking too. Labour trafficking in Canada often involves people being brought into our country from oversees and exploited in jobs like construction, restaurants, esthetics, and domestic work. Many of us are unaware that this happens, but – with greater awareness – we have opportunities to identify situations and act. In fact, in two cases I’m aware of, victims were kept in houses blocks away from the church I grew up in and the church I currently attend. A provincial strategy that addresses all elements of trafficking, not just sex trafficking, is great; labour trafficking is often forgotten in this country, and services specific to those who have been trafficked for labour are limited, especially for male victims.
But I wonder how the Ontario government will continue to address the issues of sex trafficking within the wider framework of the sex trade? 
There are various opinions of the sex trade, and language and terminology matters. Sex trafficking and prostitution (and the understanding of sex trafficking and prostitution) is nuanced and complex. Many want to clearly distinguish sex trafficking from prostitution. While there are distinctive differences between the two (especially legally), it is not possible to completely separate the two. Trafficked victims and prostituted persons work in the same venues: hotels, strip clubs, pornography, on the street, etc. And the demand for paid access to sex (primarily of women’s and children’s bodies) fuel the overall sex trade, regardless of whether it is trafficking or prostitution. This is why I use the term “commercial sexual exploitation” to address the overall issues that link both sex trafficking and prostitution.
It is somewhat “easier” to talk about sex trafficking; most (I wish I could say “all”) agree that sex trafficking is exploitative and wrong. But when you start talking about the larger realm of the sex trade, this is when conversations get really tough and difficult. Especially when it comes to funding. Will the funds designated for victim services only be allocated to organizations who specifically address trafficking? I am already starting to see alarming situations: organizations intentionally focusing on sex trafficking issues (as opposed to larger issues of commercial sexual exploitation including prostituted victims who may be in the sex trade due to circumstances like poverty or addictions) because that’s where the funds are. I heard of a situation a couple of months ago of a woman who was denied access to an organization that works with trafficked victims. The woman had been trafficked, escaped from her trafficker, had limited options available to her, so she turned to prostitution for a while before coming to this particular organization in search of help. Sadly, because this woman has most recently been in prostitution – not sex trafficking – she was turned away.
How can we continue to talk about the overall effects of the sex trade, despite the fact that these conversations can be uncomfortable and tense?
On the new Centre for Public Dialogue human trafficking webpage, you can find more information about issues of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, including Biblical responses and how to become engaged in advocacy and awareness raising.
This will be especially interesting considering their stated commitment to Indigenous-led approaches; many Indigenous women’s organizations (for example, the Native Women’s Association of Canada) have acknowledged that the sex trade in its entirety is inherently violent and oppressive.