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Canada Ontario unveils $72-million plan to fight human trafficking

Regina’s “Stroll” – the stretch of 5th Avenue where Beatrice Wallace-Littlechief, a survivor of sexual exploitation, was once trafficked, and now works as a co-ordinator with an AIDS program

May Truong/for The Globe and Mai

The Ontario government will spend up to $72-million over four years in a new anti-trafficking strategy, with support for indigenous-led approaches to tackling the issue as one of its priorities.

Government ministers unveiled the strategy on Thursday at Covenant House in Toronto, a shelter for homeless youth. They said the money will be used to bolster support for culturally appropriate services for indigenous survivors of trafficking, establish a provincial anti-trafficking coordination centre and create a specialized prosecution team for human-trafficking crimes.

Ontario is the third province in Canada to adopt a plan to fight human trafficking. The province has about 65 per cent of the human trafficking cases reported to police in the country, and the RCMP has identified Ontario as a major hub for trafficking in Canada.

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Human trafficking "is a deplorable crime that robs the safety, livelihood and dignity of those who are being exploited and abused," Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi said at the announcement.

Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected, he said in an interview. "We know the number is high. A lot of indigenous women, unfortunately, get trafficked, and that is why we wanted to have an indigenous approach as a wraparound for this entire strategy. It is disproportionate, absolutely."

A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year showed that, despite a raft of studies, reports and surveys showing that aboriginal youth and women comprise an outsized share of trafficking victims, relatively little dedicated federal funding has gone to prevention or protection.

Covenant House has provided services to 60 victims of sex trafficking so far this year, which already surpasses last year's numbers. The agency has estimated about a quarter of cases involve indigenous girls and young women.

Trafficking charges have resulted in few convictions. The rate, specifically for human trafficking, is less than 10 per cent of charges in the Ontario Court of Justice. Mr. Naqvi said that reflects the complexity of the crime and difficulty in getting victims to testify.

The provincial government did not break down how the $72-million will be spent. It did say it will expand supports for at-risk youth leaving care and bolster services for survivors, such as trauma counselling and job skills training.

Barbara Gosse, CEO of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, said she would have liked the plan to include education for judges on the issue, and more emphasis on data collection. "We need a coordinated and integrated system of collecting data from law-enforcement, frontline service providers and non-profit organizations who provide services and supports to victims," she said, so that governments can develop policies based on evidence.

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Canada's national action plan on human trafficking expired in March. Public Safety Canada, which coordinated the federal response to trafficking, said the government is determining "next steps."

Human trafficking is defined as recruiting, transporting or exercising control over a person to exploit them, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour. The majority of trafficking cases in Canada are domestic, rather than international or cross-border, and most domestic cases are sex trafficking, the RCMP says.

The province's announcement came as a global report said Canada remains a source, transit and destination for sex trafficking. Canada is also a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labour, the U.S. State Department said in its annual global report on trafficking in persons.

"Women and girls from Aboriginal communities; migrants, including those newly arrived, at-risk youth; runaway youth; and girls in the child welfare system are especially vulnerable," it said.

The report recommended Canada "significantly increase" specialized services and shelter for victims. Data collection should be improved, while inter-agency co-ordination between the provinces has been "uneven." It said training efforts – particularly for prosecutors and judges – should be increased.

It also said the government "did not provide adequate funding for specialized victim services; and the range, quality, and timely delivery of services varied across the provinces."

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Globally, human trafficking is now a $150-billion industry, the report said.

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