International Women’s Day: Reflecting on Human Trafficking in Canada: A Distressing Reality

By Andreina Minicozzi

March 8 is International Women’s Day, first recognized in August 1910 at the International Women’s Conference in Denmark. It was proposed by German socialists, Luise Zeits and Clara Zetkin, who sought to acknowledge women workers in America and Europe.[1] The objective of this annual event was to combat violence against vulnerable women and children and to recognize women’s struggles by forming alliances among them both domestically and internationally.[2] Today, International Women’s Day not only celebrates the actions of women throughout history, but also acts as a time of reflection.

In 2016, we must reflect in particular on the impact that human trafficking has on women. Human trafficking is a growing and significant international problem, especially in Canada. Toronto is the “common destination” for human trafficking in Ontario and a “hub for human trafficking routes.”[3] According to a study released by the Alliance Against Modern Slavery, 551 cases involved Ontario as the destination or “transit point” from 2011 to 2013. Other equally alarming highlights from the report are as follows:

  • 62.9% of victims trafficked to, through, or from Ontario were Canadian citizens;
  • 90% of these individuals were female; and
  • 63% of trafficked person were between the ages of 15-24.[4]

In 2010, 71 percent of reported human trafficking cases in Canada were related to sex trafficking and 63 percent of these victims were Canadian citizens.[5] Toronto police have advised that approximately 20 percent of victims of sex trafficking are Indigenous women, suggesting that this may be connected to their high rates of disappearance and death.[6]

While countries like Sweden and Belgium have been proactively combating and prosecuting human trafficking for decades,[7] Canada’s response has been “lethargic.”[8] Human trafficking was only registered as an offence in the Criminal Code in 2005.[9] Nevertheless, Canada has been working to improve, signing onto several international treaties[10] and instituting legislative reform.[11] In addition, in 2012, the government articulated a “4-P” action plan to combat human trafficking, consisting of Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnership. This federal anti-trafficking strategy coordinated with that of the provinces.[12] However, what is still missing is protection for survivors.

In recent years, Canada’s approach to human trafficking has focused on prosecuting the perpetrators. According to the RCMP, as of January 2015, 85 convictions were secured in cases of human trafficking, resulting in 151 individuals being convicted of human trafficking-related offences.[13] What Canada needs now is an action plan aimed at assisting survivors with housing, counselling, and financial support, as well as comprehensive training for law enforcement and the public.

Human trafficking is a form of slave labour.[14] It is not only illegal, but violates human dignity. If the Canadian government is to commit to helping victims of human trafficking, it must adopt a more holistic approach to combat human trafficking. The first step is to create an action plan that not only punishes the perpetrators, but, more importantly, provides support services to survivors recovering from their fear and trauma. Premier Kathleen Wynne has acknowledged that Ontario has fallen behind in the fight against human trafficking and needs more coordination of information and support for victims.[15] In the words of Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins: “This is a Toronto problem, an Ontario problem and a Canada problem. Everyone thinks it’s not happening here, but it is.”[16] The Ontario government is expected to launch a comprehensive action plan to combat human trafficking in June, 2016. Hopefully this action plan will revise legislation, fund service centers providing survivors with shelter, psychological, legal, medical and social assistance, provide educational services to law enforcement and the public, and provide greater funding for ongoing analysis and research across Canada. This International Women’s Day, let us remember those women who survive the indignities of human trafficking by advocating for their support.

[1] T Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day” (1985) 11:1 Feminist Studies.

[2] United Nations Women Watch, History of International Women’s Day (2015), online: <>.

[3] CBC News, Toronto a ‘Hub’ for Human Trafficking: Report Says (14 June 2014), online: <>.

[4] Alliance Against Modern Slavery, The Incident of Human Trafficking in Ontario (2014) at 7, online: <> [Alliance Against Modern Slavery].

[5] Ibid at 9.

[6] K Blaze & T Grant, “Ontario Government to Unveil Strategy to Tackle Human Trafficking” The Globe and Mail (12 February 2016), online: <>.

[7] See Belgium and Sweden as leaders for combatting human trafficking: Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism (CEOOR) Belgium, Trafficking and Smuggling of Human Beings: Preface & Part I: An Integral evaluation of Policy in the fight against trafficking in human beings, report 2007 (2008); A Gould, “The Criminalization of Buying Sex: The Politics of Prostitution in Sweden” (2001) 30:03 Journal of Social Policy.

[8]  B Perrin, Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2010) at xi [Perrin, “Invisible Chains”].

[9] Perrin, “Invisible Chains”, supra note 7 at xi; Bill C-49: An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (Trafficking in Persons, online: <>.

[10] Notably the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (

[11] Such as: (a) Bill C-49: An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (Trafficking in Persons), which came into force in 2005 creating human trafficking as a crime; (b) Bill C-11: The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (the IRPA), which came into force in 2001 defining human trafficking and smuggling as a distinct offence; (c) Bill S-223: The Victims of Human Trafficking Protection Act, which came into force in 2009 to amend the IRPA and include the victims in the definition of human trafficking (this amendment provides victims to stay in Canada for one hundred and eighty days with open access to health care services and counseling, but no other services are mentioned); and (d) Bill C-268: An Act to Amend the Criminal Code, which came into force in 2010 launching a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for those who are convicted of trafficking of persons.

[12] Public Safety Canada, National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking (2012), online: <>.

[13] Royal Canadian Mountain Police, Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre (2015), online: <>.

[14] A Agathangelou, The Global Political Economy of Sex: Desire, Violence and Insecurity in Mediterranean Nation States (New York: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2006) at 42-43.

[15] Queen’s Park, “Ontario in ‘Drastic Need’ of Tackling Sex Trafficking, Wynne Says” The Star (14 December 2015), online: <>.

[16] Ibid.