Advocates say a new Saskatchewan human trafficking prevention bill is progress, and more needs to be done to address the complexities of the issue outside the legal sphere. The justice ministry announced Friday it’s starting work on legislation similar to a bill introduced in Alberta in April.
The Alberta bill is an extension of powers already present in the Criminal Code, providing victims with a broader range of legal options and expanding law enforcement’s powers in preventing and responding to human trafficking. Included is the ability for victims to sue their abusers in provincial court, and the creation of a kind of civil warrant that allows police to help remove a trafficking victim from a home.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Justice Minister Don Morgan said the decision to start work on the legislation now came as a result of other jurisdictions like Alberta doing so. “We would not want to be the only jurisdiction that had chosen not to do this, then people would tend to gravitate to our province,” Morgan said.
He acknowledged it’s been a year since the release of the final report of the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which called for an approach to protecting victims of trafficking that addresses the power imbalances and stigma at play. Human trafficking disproportionately affects young Indigenous women in Canada. According to RCMP data, 50 percent of identified victims in 2016 belonged to that group, despite making up four per cent of Canada’s population.
Nearly 75 per cent were under the age of 25 — and a quarter of them were under 18. The report found that the majority of victims were sexually exploited at an early age, and failures of the child welfare system made them especially vulnerable to trafficking. EGADZ executive director Don Meikle said addressing the issue of human trafficking starts with breaking that cycle, providing social supports to young people before they are caught up in systems of exploitation.
He has some doubts about whether victims would want to engage with the legal system, noting that preventative measures and mental health and trauma supports are much-needed investments. “I don’t know if people understand the complexities of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. I don’t honestly believe all the laws in the world are going to fix this,” Meikle said. “I think protection of victims is a step in the right direction, but it has to come right from the ground level.”
When asked if the province is also considering additional preventative supports on top of the legislation, Morgan said he is in talks with federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett about possible next steps and further measures. Saskatoon police Staff Sgt. Grant Obst told the Canadian Press last year that it’s rare for police to lay human trafficking charges because victims are often afraid to come forward. Meikle said young victims often don’t even realize they’ve been exploited, and once they do, the focus is more on healing than pursuing legal action.
“A lot of these young people when they’re being exploited they don’t even know it, they don’t even know that they’re being victimized,” Meikle said. “And it takes a long time after the charges are done and it goes to court. They quite often blame themselves.” Morgan said as far as the ministry is aware, the average number of human trafficking cases in Saskatchewan is less than one per year.
A smartphone app EGADZ staff use to anonymously engage with youth at risk of sexual exploitation receives about 1,700 hits a month, Meikle said.
Morgan said the government will work with Indigenous and community-based stakeholders as well as those in law and policing to develop the bill. Meikle said EGADZ is receptive to being part of those conversations.
Published on: August 22, 2020