Freedom United and allies urge Ontario to rethink police-centered anti-trafficking bill

A bill to combat human trafficking in Canada’s most populous province is receiving pushback from sex worker advocates who say it could do more harm than good.

Ontario’s standing committee on justice policy will this week debate the Combating Human Trafficking Act, which the solicitor general says is intended to protect trafficking victims.

But Freedom United and other advocacy groups are urging the government to reject a bill which they say places too much emphasis on law enforcement.

The legislation would give police a range of new powers, including full access to hotel registries, the ability to enter places not classified as dwellings without a warrant, and steep fines for non-compliance.

Campaigners argue that sex workers—already frequently targeted by police—would be further endangered if the bill were to pass, particularly those from marginalized ethnic groups.

Sandra Ka Hon Chu of the HIV Legal Network notes that past anti-trafficking campaigns centered on law enforcement have resulted in the arrest and detention of sex workers, including by officers posing as clients.

CBC News reports:

Chu says in her experience speaking with sex workers, including a 2019 survey she co-authored, anti-human trafficking initiatives have been seen as “pretext to monitor and interrogate sex workers and discourage them from working.” 

“One sweeping commonality amongst all the sex workers we interviewed was their experience of law enforcement as a source of repression, not protection,” she said. 

Former and current sex workers have voiced their support of the advocacy groups fighting the bill, arguing that the bill unfairly targets them while claiming to protect trafficking victims.

“It’s going to over-capture, but it’s also going to over-police individuals who are not supposed to be the subject of  concern in this bill, which would be human trafficking victims,” [former sex worker and Indigenous Lawyer Naomi Sayers] told CBC News.

“This bill is framed as supporting victims and providing support to victims. But actually, what it ends up doing is diverting resources away from victims and human trafficking and diverts them towards the police.”

In our submission to the province’s Legislative Assembly on Thursday, Freedom United echoed the concerns of Chu and other sex worker advocacy groups and urged a rethink of the bill.

Freedom United strongly supports the advocacy groups’ position that anti-trafficking initiatives should seek to tackle the underlying factors that make people vulnerable to trafficking.

In order to address human trafficking in Ontario, Freedom United strongly recommends that the Ontario government rethink its emphasis on a punitive, law enforcement approach primarily focused on stopping sex trafficking. A truly comprehensive anti-trafficking strategy should focus on efforts to build resilience to human trafficking in all forms and direct resources towards community-based organizations rather than law enforcement.

The erroneous conflation of consensual sex work and trafficking for sexual exploitation is common around the world; learn more about this important distinction here.

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