Mr. Speaker, I am sharing my time with my hon. colleague, the member for Winnipeg Centre.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada, things were already bleak for women fleeing violence and falling victim to human trafficking. Many have tagged women enduring violence as a shadow pandemic or a pandemic within a pandemic, but no matter what name we give it, the fact is that when a woman encounters violence in Canada and is not seen as a person to be respected and treated equally, but only as a commodity, which is every day, we are failing her.
I am pleased to speak about this issue today, but like violence against women, like pay equity and like so many issues that involve equality and dignity for women, we know the solutions required, but we are not making the political choices to do what is necessary.
I support this motion. I was happy to support it at the status of women committee and I am grateful that our committee has spent the last few months studying the impacts of COVID on women. I would like to share what I heard at committee and from my community about human trafficking.
According to the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, human trafficking impacts women of all different ages, racial backgrounds and cultural groups. Everyone is at risk. The risks can be exacerbated by things like social isolation and emotional vulnerability. These factors, of course, have been aggravated by the pandemic, For those at higher risk, there is something we have heard repeatedly during this pandemic: People who are already vulnerable, such as women living in poverty, women living with disabilities, immigrant women, indigenous women and children, are disproportionately affected by this form of abuse and violence.
The statistics for human trafficking are alarming. The latest Statistics Canada report states that one person out of every 100,000 is a victim of human trafficking, but it also stated that the true rate is likely far higher, given the high level of victim vulnerability and the fact that such crimes often go unreported. The report suggests that the majority of human trafficking victims in Canada are women and girls younger than 25 years old.
I am so sad to say that these crimes in Canada are increasing, and we are seeing a noted increase in my riding as well. In London, Ontario, the London Abused Women’s Centre saw a 37% increase in calls to its organization for support and services related to human trafficking during the pandemic and speculated that the pandemic may aggravate risks of online exploitation. If we think about this, we realize that women and girls, mainly children, are online constantly now. Whether they are at school learning, researching and working online, socializing with their friends online or spending their free time through gaming or entertainment, it is online and it is constant. It is the children who are being treated as the greatest commodity of human trafficking.
Years ago, before I was elected, I was approached by a mom, a woman who was desperate to help her daughter. The daughter had significant mental health issues, and when she was 15 years old, she went online and met a man who promised her love, attention and a good time. He bought her clothes and drugs. She moved in with him. She became an addict. She was told that she then had to start to earn those drugs and clothes. She disappeared. Her family could not find her for years. Eventually, she found the strength to escape and she came back home. She was almost 18 at that time. She was admitted to the hospital to deal with her addiction and her mental health problems. She went home, but shortly thereafter she returned to the man and to the drugs and he sold her again. She turned 18 and her mother could not do anything about her leaving. She was an adult. No one could help.
There are incredible groups in my community that see this story and so many other heart-wrenching stories every day, and they provide the supports and help that this mom needed so desperately.
Services such as support groups, emergency and long-term shelters, affordable housing, counselling and education about human trafficking are integral to a survivor's recovery, but our committee heard that of the organizations providing these services and accepting referrals, a majority had implemented reduced service hours and changes to service provision due to funding cuts and the pandemic.
In 2007, the same committee for the status of women studied these issues and put forward a report called “Turning Outrage into Action to Address Trafficking for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation in Canada”. This report outlined necessary actions that government could take to address human trafficking. Certainly, within government organizations and legal institutions, people are more aware, educated and active on the fight against human trafficking. However, almost 14 years later, the status of women committee heard witnesses tell us that these problems still exist and that we are not effectively addressing the issue. I believe that our failure to provide adequate and reliable funding is causing this continuance.
During the pandemic, numerous women's organizations spoke of the need for core funding. Operational-based funding is necessary for any organization to be able to shift within an emergency situation. During the Harper government, a great deal of funding to women's organizations was cut, and any funding provided was made available only under specific project-based funding. Under the subsequent Liberal government, some funding has been returned, but not to the levels required and only through that same project-based funding model.
This has left organizations scrambling, unable to move money to where they need it in a crisis. They cannot plan what they know their community needs. They must adhere to what projects have been put forward by governments. In addition, because they do not have adequate funds, they must rely upon constant private fundraising, which, as we know, is down because of the pandemic.
In London, we saw this exact example when organizations lost government funding to fight human trafficking. In the middle of the pandemic, when victims and survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence were at heightened vulnerability, the London Abused Women's Centre also had to deal with closing down their programming or trying to find funds from the community to survive.
Services for women in situations of human trafficking need greater stability and security. It is key for different levels of governments to work collaboratively to implement long-term, sustainable solutions to address human trafficking in Canada. It is still the case that some provinces did not deem women’s shelters as essential services during the pandemic, so these shelters had to close their doors.
We are months overdue on an action plan to respond to the calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The federal government is failing to deliver on its promise to indigenous people and a key commitment of culturally appropriate and geographically accessible services. An organization in London, Atlohsa, has created Okaadenige, the Survivors circle, which brings together those who have lived experience in human trafficking to provide support, access to traditional knowledge and teachings in a safe space.
We need to increase services related to homelessness, sexual health, mental health and addiction, as well as services to respond to violence and trafficking. Youth Opportunities Unlimited in London provides basic needs and housing, access to physical, mental or dental health care, and education and employment services specifically designed to help youth lead positive lives.
We know that when survivors of human trafficking try to report their experiences to authorities, they can be re-traumatized or intimidated by the process, so many do not report them. Although Canada’s legal system is heavily reliant on victim testimony, it is not designed to support victims and survivors of sexually based violence, including trafficking. We must provide training and education for those in the legal system. Across southwestern Ontario, Courage for Freedom is raising awareness and teaching, training, and certifying front-line staff and community service providers with proven strategies and prevention tactics to serve vulnerable victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Through actions like #ProjectMapleLeaf, they bring awareness to community agencies and personnel, government agencies, workers and families who serve in positions that may be witnessing human trafficking and do not even know it.
One of the greatest unequalizers of all, of course, is poverty. We continually fail to eradicate poverty in Canada. We could start with a guaranteed livable basic income. That would be a great start. When women have power and independence, they have true choice, and only then can we begin to deal with the violence they face.
There is a great deal more that I cannot cover today in my speech. However, to conclude, we must recommit to ensure that we will no longer put women at the back of the line. No longer will we say that they can wait for these programs and services or that we should study this problem again.
As was stated in 2007, “When a woman or girl is reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold, raped, beaten, and psychologically devastated, her fundamental human rights and dignity are repeatedly violated”, and we have failed.
We must act. I hope this motion and the declaration of February 22 leads to the actions and political courage necessary to put an end to human trafficking.