Human trafficking in Canada

Human trafficking does not sound like something that happens in Winnipeg. Sure, most of us have heard of it, but usually in the context of far away places. Yet news of Manitoba’s first human trafficking charge reveals that this is both an urgent issue, and one that is deeply hidden in Canada.

The Criminal Code of Canada defines human trafficking (officially referred to as trafficking in persons) as a “person who recruits, transports, transfers, receives, holds, conceals or harbours a person, or who exercises control or influence over the movements of a person, for the purposes of exploiting them or facilitating their exploitation.” This differs from smuggling, as a person can give consent to be smuggled over a border. However, it is not possible to consent to being exploited.

An extensive report recently released by the RCMP reveals startling information about the state of human trafficking in Canada. The report found that the majority of human trafficking in Canada involves Canadian citizens who are sexually exploited by other Canadian citizens — mainly through escort agencies and residential brothels. Recruiting mainly happens over the Internet and through acquaintances. Findings show that many people are trafficked by other people of similar ethnicity. It is also common practice for traffickers to take identification cards away from their victims and to encourage and feed victims’ addictions to illegal drugs.

All of these facts hit very close to home in Winnipeg. Last year a residential brothel in a quiet Wolseley neighbourhood was shut down, much to the shock of area residents. There were charges that ranged from keeping a common bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution and procuring, to possession of a controlled substance. Allegedly part of a Winnipeg Internet-based escort agency, there were no human trafficking charges laid in this case. However, given the RCMP’s new findings on human trafficking, this was likely a textbook case.

The situation currently in the news involves a young woman from northern Manitoba who came to Winnipeg alone and was staying in a shelter. Befriended by a local woman, the young woman began staying with her. The accused took the 21-year-old’s identification documents and forced her to work in the sex trade. Facing assaults and forcible confinement, it wasn’t until police found the victim screaming on the roof of a North End apartment block that her story was heard.

The case of the 21 year-old woman and the brothel are both incredibly horrific local sex-related incidents that are certainly not isolated occurrences. Yet human trafficking does not necessarily involve the sexual exploitation of young women. A recent situation in Ontario has revealed that a group of Hungarian immigrants were being forced to work in the construction industry for low wages, and their government benefits were being taken from them by members of a Hamilton family. Not only that, but they were forced to live in deplorable conditions.

With anti-human trafficking legislation only coming into effect in 2005, it is disturbing that there have been so few human trafficking charges laid in Canada. It is even more heartbreaking to consider the organized human trafficking systems that have been allowed to grow over so many years of legislative oversight and under-enforcement. When incidents like these hit so close to home, it is obvious that this is everyone’s problem.

-Noreen Mae Ritsema is the Features Editor at the Manitoban.