Opinion

Ordinary folks can help stop human trafficking

By Robin Baranyai, Special to Postmedia Network

Street performance by Abolishion team to raise awareness of human trafficking and sexual slavery, Athens, Greece, Sep 20, 2016.  (Giorgos Georgiou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Street performance by Abolishion team to raise awareness of human trafficking and sexual slavery, Athens, Greece, Sep 20, 2016. (Giorgos Georgiou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Red flags aren't always visible to the untrained eye.

Travellers may appear mismatched -- an older, well-dressed man with a younger woman, often a minor, not a relative. She is never out of his sight. The girl may appear fearful, bruised or drugged.

But the warning signs can be much more subtle. She may be dressed inappropriately for the weather. The man may insist on speaking for her, or become defensive if questioned. If the pair checks into a hotel, he might pay with a gift card or cash -- untraceable. There may be an unusual amount of traffic in and out of the room.

We often think of human trafficking as an international problem -- forced prostitution in Asia, or child slavery on cocoa plantations in Côte d'Ivoire. But people are bought and sold right here in Canada -- primarily Ontario -- with alarming frequency.

Over a three-year period, the Alliance Against Modern Slavery recorded 551 cases of human trafficking in Ontario for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced labour and forced marriage.

According to a 2014 report, 62.9 per cent of the victims were Canadian citizens. Ninety per cent were girls and women; the most common age was 17.

Trafficking is often invisible, researchers noted. These cases likely represent "the tip of the iceberg."

As community members who may unwittingly transport vulnerable people into situations of exploitation, taxi drivers are in a unique position to help stop human trafficking. In North Bay, police work co-operatively with cab drivers and hotel staff to educate the industries about signs of trafficking, and how to respond.

New York goes a step further. In 2012, the city began training all taxi drivers in the signs of sex trafficking, and made it a legal requirement to report suspicious activities. Cabbies who fail to speak up face a $10,000 fine and loss of licence for their part in ferrying victims to abusers.

Drivers and others who work with the public may feel uncomfortable with some of the client interactions they witness. But if the behaviour is not physically abusive, they may not know what, if anything, to do about it.

Free online training is available through the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, in English and French, for service providers who support trafficking victims. The training was developed in consultation with experts, including survivors themselves.

Varied organizations have also developed resources to support concerned members, such as Truckers Against Trafficking, and an interfaith learning kit developed by the Canadian Council of Churches.

Increasingly there is a shared sense of duty to learn to spot crimes that may be taking place right before our eyes.

On Feb. 22, Ontario introduced the Anti-Human Trafficking Act, a bill to prevent modern slavery, raise awareness and help survivors rebuild their lives.

The legislation would establish trafficking-specific restraining orders for victims, as well as people at risk of trafficking.

Proposed changes would also expand the Victims' Bill of Rights to include human trafficking, paving the way for survivors to sue their abusers for emotional distress.

If passed, Feb. 22 will be formally designated Human Trafficking Awareness Day, commemorating the 10th anniversary of Parliament's unanimous decision, on Feb. 22, 2007, to condemn all forms of human trafficking and slavery.

The proposed legislation builds on a provincial investment "up to $72 million" in strategies to combat human trafficking, including improved access to community services such as housing, mental health, trauma counselling and job skills training.

Advocates have long called for a formal task force dedicated to combatting human trafficking, mirroring those in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba.

write.robin@baranyai.ca