Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Bill S-224, an act to amend the Criminal Code regarding trafficking in persons. I want to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here on the traditional unceded lands of the Algonquin people.
The bill came to us on October 18 after having passed the other place; it proposes reforms to the definition of “exploitation” for the purposes of the Criminal Code's human trafficking offences. The bill seeks to protect victims and to hold human traffickers accountable. These are laudable and pressing objectives.
Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, and it is often described as a modern-day form of slavery. It involves recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/or control over the movement of persons for the purposes of exploitation, typically sexual exploitation or forced labour. Human trafficking devastates victims and survivors, as well as their families, their communities and society as a whole.
In Canada, reported human trafficking data primarily relates to trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Traffickers seek to profit off the sexual exploitation of others, treating victims as commodities to be used for the traffickers' financial gain. Between 2010 and 2021, the large majority of individuals accused of trafficking were men, most commonly between the ages of 18 and 24. While we know that anyone can be targeted by a trafficker and become a victim of human trafficking, 96% of police-reported victims between 2010 and 2021 were women and girls.
Almost one in four, or 24%, of the reported victims, were younger than the age of 18; half, 45%, were between 18 and 24 years old; and one in five were between the ages of 25 and 34 years old. Moreover, women and girls were more at risk of being targeted by a trafficker when impacted by factors like poverty, isolation, precarious housing, substance use, a history of violence, childhood maltreatment and mental health issues. In short, traffickers look for young women and girls in precarious situations and target these individuals for financial gain.
We also know that indigenous women and girls are disproportionately represented among victims or those at risk of becoming victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation. The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls notes several intersecting factors that increase the likelihood of being targeted by a trafficker. Those include systemic racism, violence against indigenous women and girls, intergenerational trauma linked to colonization, the lack of access to social and economic resources and colonial assimilation policies.
Traffickers likely target victims who experience these types of risk factors. The majority of victims are trafficked by someone they know. For example, nearly one-third of victims have been trafficked by a current or former intimate partner. In fact, some traffickers target and romantically pursue potential victims with the specific intent of exploiting them.
Traffickers will go to a great extents to keep victims isolated and unable to seek help. They often separate victims from those who could help them, hide them from the public, ensure they do not have access to support and may force victims to commit crimes while being trafficked, convincing them that they will be arrested if they try to seek help.
We also know that victims may be unwilling or unable to seek help for a number of reasons, such as distrust of authorities, which is often created or fostered by the traffickers themselves, or because victims are fearful, ashamed, not aware of their rights in Canada, experiencing language barriers, or have a desire to protect their traffickers.
After being trafficked, victims may experience post-traumatic stress and memory loss as a result of the physical, sexual, financial, emotional and psychological abuse they were subjected to while being trafficked. Many victims have both physical and psychological scars from being trafficked.
It is crucial to support victims and bring their traffickers to justice. I am reassured by the fact that the Criminal Code contains a strong legislative framework governing human trafficking that includes a specific offence of trafficking in persons, including trafficking in adults, trafficking in children, receiving a material benefit from trafficking in persons, and withholding or destroying identity documents to facilitate the commission of this crime, with maximum penalties of up to life imprisonment. Because human trafficking cases are complex, other offences may be used depending on the facts of the case, such as forcible confinement, assault, sexual assault and uttering threats.
Bill S-224 would strengthen this framework. I agree with the bill's sponsor that we must continue to reflect on how we can ensure the most robust legislative framework possible, and I am grateful that we now have the opportunity to do just that.
That brings me to my main concern with Bill S-224. The bill would repeal the Criminal Code's existing definition of exploitation, resulting in prosecutors no longer being able to rely on that definition in appropriate cases. The current definition of exploitation focuses on the impact of the trafficker's conduct on a reasonable person in the victim's circumstances.
I note that the existing definition was first enacted in 2005 and thus we have 17 years of jurisprudence interpreting it. I am pleased to be able to report that the definition has been interpreted broadly, as I have already noted, applied to human trafficking cases that have involved purely psychological forms of coercion. This is critically important because human traffickers often target victims due to their vulnerabilities, which make them easy to manipulate without the need to resort to more violent tactics. In particular, both the Ontario and Quebec courts of appeal have found that under such an existing approach prosecutors do not need to prove that the victim was actually afraid, that the accused used or threatened the use of physical violence or even that exploitation actually occurred. Prosecutors need only to prove that a reasonable person in the victim's circumstances would fear for their safety, that the accused engaged in psychological forms of coercion and that the accused either intended to exploit the victim or knew that someone else intended to do so.
If Bill S-224 were amended to add the proposed definition of exploitation as an additional definition that could be used in appropriate cases, prosecutors would have an additional tool to assist, ensuring that traffickers are held to account. Such an approach would strengthen the existing criminal laws in response to human trafficking without removing any of the existing tools that have been successful in achieving the critical objective of ending this heinous crime.
Since 2005 when human trafficking offences were enacted in the Criminal Code, Canada has continued to demonstrate leadership in combatting human trafficking. For example, in 2019, the Government of Canada launched the national strategy to combat human trafficking. The strategy is led by Public Safety Canada and is a five-year whole-of-government approach to addressing human trafficking. It frames federal activities under the internationally recognized pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership.
The objectives of Bill S-224 are laudable and I share the sponsor's concern about the serious impacts that human trafficking has on victims. I welcome the opportunity to study the bill.