TORONTO - A motion to create a provincial task force on sex trafficking may have passed the Ontario legislature with all-party support, but the Liberal government indicates it won't be following through to establish one.
Progressive Conservative MPP Laurie Scott's private member's motion called for the government to "immediately" create such a task force, similar to one already in place to combat guns and gangs.
Tracy MacCharles, the minister for women's issues, spoke in the legislature about the "devastating" crime of human trafficking and listed various funding and supports Ontario already has in place to deal with it.
"It's a complicated issue that requires collaboration with community organizations, between ministries, police forces and international partners, which is why we did not wait for this motion today to take action on this issue," she said.
When asked whether the passage of the non-binding motion meant a task force would be established, a spokeswoman for Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi said the government would continue to work with its partners "to combat this very serious issue."
Scott told the legislature there is a misconception that victims of sex trafficking in Ontario are girls and women from other countries, but the opposite is true.
"I've heard stories of girls being targeted at the mall food court, the parking lot at their high school or a house party they attended with friends," Scott told the legislature.
"This is in stark contrast to how many people perceive human trafficking and it shows that while at-risk individuals do face the greatest threat of being trafficked, human trafficking is a scourge that can affect anyone, no matter their background or socio-economic status."
In York Region, north of Toronto, Det.-Sgt. Peter Casey said sex trafficking victims come from all walks of life.
"Unfortunately those out there, these pimps that are out there unfortunately have a lot of experience in identifying those who may be easier to procure into this world," he said.
Pimps move the girls — often aged 14 or younger — away from family supports and shuffle them around the province or further if they think authorities are closing in, Casey said.
A provincewide task force would better co-ordinate investigations and prosecutions, Scott said, but it's also important to co-ordinate the supports for women and girls escaping that exploitation.
"One aspect where a provincial task force would be immeasurable would be its ability to help facilitate the creation of safe houses solely for the purpose of sheltering human trafficking victims," Scott said.
Scott spearheaded the call for a committee on sexual violence and harassment, which is in the midst of hearing from witnesses. The director of an organization that helps sexually exploited women told the committee that housing is primary.
"Then it's like a tie for second: counselling and job opportunities," said Cassandra Diamond of BridgeNorth. "If you cannot make enough money to provide for yourself or your family, again, the vacuum just sucks you right back up and you're stuck."
People at various points along the system could also be better trained to recognize signs of exploitation, such as probation officers, nurses and doctors, even municipal employees, where victims may be applying for an exotic dancing licence, Scott said.
In York Region, where police have been using a victim-focused approach for about seven years — they haven't charged a single sex-trade worker with solicitation since then — Casey said the goal is to reach victims and make sure they become and remain survivors. The approach is similar in many other police services across the province, he said.
"Police services no longer, or shouldn't be, treating young vulnerable women in the sex trade as accused, rather they're treating them as those who are being exploited or victimized," he said.
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