OTTAWA - Canada's new action plan to combat human trafficking, announced Wednesday with great fanfare, comes after years of prodding by the United States to do just that.
The U.S. State Department's most recent annual report on "trafficking in persons," released last year, lamented an inadequate level of co-operation between the federal government in Ottawa and the provinces.
"The government lacked a national strategy to combat trafficking, and limited co-ordination between the federal and provincial governments on anti-trafficking efforts continued to be a challenge," the report said.
It called on Canada to "strengthen co-ordination among national and provincial governments on law enforcement and victim services, in part by adopting a national strategy to combat human trafficking."
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews addressed that issue directly on Wednesday when he announced that the government would be assembling a special team of officers to tackle the crime of human trafficking, part of an overall action plan.
"All of the provinces have been active participants in the development of this strategy," Toews said.
He also noted that creation of the plan has been a process dating back to 2005, the year before the Conservative government won power.
"Various aspects of this were developed with the stakeholders, with the various police forces, national and international partners. We think it's time to bring it together in the co-ordinated way we've announced today."
Calling it a "despicable crime," Toews cited a need for a comprehensive action plan on human trafficking, "particularly as the number of human traffickers and victims identified by police continues to grow."
A law-enforcement squad composed of RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency members will be assigned to the problem, he said.
The government plans to step up training for police, border agents and prosecutors.
In addition, Toews promised to boost research and information-sharing on trafficking — a shadowy and often little understood crime in which vulnerable people effectively become slaves to those who use them for profit.
The Public Safety Department will also lead a task force on human trafficking as part of the effort, which includes $25 million in new money over four years.
In addition to pressure from the U.S., the federal government has received pointed recommendations from Benjamin Perrin, a University of British Columbia law professor now working as a special adviser in the Prime Minister's Office.
In his 2010 book "Invisible Chains," Perrin called on the government to make fighting human trafficking a national priority. Among his suggestions was an integrated law enforcement team along the lines of the one the government announced Wednesday.
"Central to the country's failure to deal with human trafficking is a lack of leadership and accountability," Perrin wrote.
The RCMP is aware of 23 Canadian cases in which human-trafficking charges were laid and the accused have been convicted of human trafficking or other related offences, says Public Safety.
Perhaps the most high-profile example to date is the nine-year prison sentence meted out to the ringleader of a Hamilton, Ont., trafficking operation in which unwitting victims were lured from Hungary to work in construction for minimal or no pay.
Currently, about 59 Canadian cases involving 98 individuals accused of human-trafficking offences remain before the courts.
Toews noted that 18 federal departments are working on the issue. "So there needs to be some co-ordination."
Toews also said he hopes the strategy will help prevent trafficking cases.
"I would like to see fewer cases in court because we've taken proactive steps in order to ensure people are not exploited," he said.
"Canadians will be educated in order to deal with this, whether the exploitation is taking place in domestic homes, in businesses or out on the street."
RCMP Assistant Commissioner Todd Shean said Canadians have a role to play in the prevention of the crime. He said Canadians need to ask themselves questions when they see someone "hiring somebody and they're living in deplorable conditions, you're not paying them for their work, and you're telling them this is how we treat people in Canada."
"We should recognize as Canadians how we expect Canadians to treat our workers, how we expect Canadians to treat new immigrants or other people," said Shean.
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