Bill 251, Combating Human Trafficking Act, 2021: Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres responds

About us

Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) is comprised of 30+ Anglophone community-based sexual assault centres from across Ontario. Member centres have been supporting survivors of sexual violence since 1977: our member centres’ services include counselling to survivors of sexual violence, accompaniment to hospital, police and court, advocacy and crisis support. Comprehensive community awareness and prevention education programs are offered by member of our Coalition as part of their services in Ontario communities on sexual violence, responding to sexual assault disclosures and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. 

Ontario sexual assault centres have been supporting survivors of sexual exploitation and human trafficking for many years. Thanks to recent investments, infrastructure and targeted programming to support trafficked survivors exist in Ontario’s sexual assault centres. 

Community-based sexual assault centres’ unique capacities in supporting trafficked persons include longstanding expertise in working with those who have experienced sexual violence, survivor advocacy and system navigation.

What is Bill 251?

Bill 251, Combating Human Trafficking Act, 2021 was introduced by Solicitor General Sylvia Jones in February 2021. It was quietly passed by the Government of Ontario in late May.

OCRCC has significant concerns about Bill 251, Combating Human Trafficking Act, 2021. While the stated intent of Bill 251 is to combat human trafficking and provide support for survivors, a close examination of the bill conveys a largely criminal justice understanding of human trafficking.

This limits community-based solutions, including options for those who have experienced trafficking. In addition, Bill 251 opens up expanded police authority that will, in turn, create new challenges for trafficked persons as well as others in our communities. Our concerns are outlined in further detail below.

Bill 251 does not distinguish between sex work and human trafficking

Human trafficking is frequently conflated with sex work. It is wrong to assume that sex work is a kind of sexual exploitation, and that all sex workers or migrant sex workers are trafficked victims. In Canada, human trafficking is defined as a criminal offense with three distinct elements:

  • The Act (recruiting, transporting, sheltering, or receiving people)
  • The Means (the use [or threat] of force, coercion, fraud, or deception)
  • The Purpose (for sexual exploitation, forced labour, or organ removal)

The Learning Network at the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children further describes the distinction between sex trafficking and sex work: “if an adult chooses to engage in consensual, paid sex work on their own terms and is not controlled and exploited by another person, it is not considered human trafficking. While experiencers of trafficking may be forced into sexual exploitation, it does not follow that all sex workers are exploited or that their activities constitute a form of human trafficking”[1].

The conflation of sex work with sex trafficking is not just a philosophical or terminology concern: in Ontario communities, this conflation brings penalties for sex workers. Where sex work is not identified as real work, for example, those who earn an income through sex work are not eligible for work-related benefits or protections. This reality brings particular economic and social impacts for Black and Indigenous people, persons of color, or members of the trans, genderqueer, non-binary, Two Spirit, and intersex community who engage in sex work.

This conflation also increases vulnerability to violence instead of mitigating it. Systems and legislation that regulate, stigmatize or surveil sex work – even incidentally, under the appearance of protections for victims, like Bill 251 – compel sex working individuals to conduct their work in secrecy and isolation to avoid criminalization. Ultimately, this leads to realities in which sex working individuals are at greater risk of being targeted for violence, yet have less access to police protection[2].

Alternate models exist. In the Netherlands, for example, positive changes have occurred where sex work has been fully decriminalized, allowing a clearer distinction between sex work and trafficking, and increasing police protection for both groups. Sex work is legal in the Netherlands as long as it involves sex between consenting adults; abuses like forced sex work, underage sex work and unsafe working conditions still occur. However, to give sex workers better protection and improve their lives, the government has amended rules for businesses in the sex industry[3]: a worker can openly seek support on relevant topics, such as unsafe working conditions and reporting harassment and violence[4].  

OCRCC believes that anyone should be able to engage in work of their choosing. Decriminalization, as in the model described above, would free those who do sex work from the existing realities of state regulation and stigmatization.

Bill 251 provides for expanded police authority that will challenge the safety and rights of sex workers, racialized communities and at-risk youth

We note that Bill 251 gives expansive powers to police and inspectors. Under this Bill they may, without a warrant or notice, enter a space and examine, request or remove anything they deem relevant. With this, Bill 251 provides law enforcement and investigators with wide powers. These powers puts us all at risk of being unduly policed[5]—with some populations at particularly heightened risk of this.

Research shows that people who are Black, Indigenous or people of color face increased discrimination from police[6] and criminal justice systems[7]. More, sex workers are keenly aware that they can be criminalized for their work, and as a result hold unique concerns around police surveillance[8], police accountability, and whether or not police will support them if they are harassed or violated. Many sex workers report having experienced police harassment stemming from some level of racial and social profiling[9].

We are also concerned about Bill 251’s permission for child protection or peace officers to detain youth who are believed to have been trafficked. While we support protecting at-risk youth, detention will certainly be experienced as punitive and traumatizing to young victims. We recommend a community-based response, which prioritizes relationship-building, crisis, support and practical assistance, as opposed to the Bill’s current provision—that is, a Child and Family Services Act section to apprehend and detain youth survivors.

At a time when the over-policing of marginalized communities[10] have faced significant critique ‒ and in the face of recent public backlash against increased police surveillance in response to other social issues[11] ‒ Bill 251 nonetheless aims to implement these very things. We are surprised that the Ontario government has implemented such a contentious model of victim response. As the Black Legal Action Centre shares:

“Survivors of trafficking, activists and experts have argued for many years, that heightened surveillance through ‘preventive’ policing has not necessarily proved to be effective. In fact, the findings have shown adverse consequences for individuals who are made to experience unwarranted and intensified legal intervention”[12].

Black Legal Action Centre

Indeed, we don’t believe that many of Bill 251’s measures will be effective. We are also concerned about the negative outcomes of enhanced police powers in Ontario.

A community-based approach is the most effective way to support survivors of sexual trafficking

A community-based response means a prevention and survivor support model that includes:

  • Working with survivors of human trafficking from a trauma-informed framework.
  • The capacity to support survivors of sex trafficking who do not engage with the criminal justice system (as well as expertise, resources and supports for those that do)[13]. While it is important that survivors of crime have access to the legal system, survivors of sexual violence also need access to alternative supports and ways of rebuilding their lives.
  • Support practices that are framed by the understanding that different people experience sexual violence differently. We know that a person’s race, gender, socioeconomic status and age can affect their level of risk for being targeted for acts of violence, as well as resources accessible to them escape violence. As example, according to TransPulse, half of all trans persons experience sexual violence, with increased prevalence affecting racialized trans people[14]; and Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than members of any other demographic group in Canada[15]
  • Awareness that trafficked persons have complex confidentiality and safety needs.
  • An awareness that systemic issues such as “poverty, precarious immigration status and lack of access to affordable housing, health and social services and labour protections”[16] drive vulnerability to exploitation, including sexual exploitation, in Ontario
  • An understanding of the complex needs of trafficked survivors, and the ability to help them to navigate health, justice, housing, income support and other systems.

We believe that a community-based approach is the most effective way to support survivors of sexual trafficking, and those at-risk of being trafficked.  In addition, leadership and expertise of Indigenous organizations and leaders is integral to identifying promising practices for preventing and responding to the trafficking of Indigenous people.

Despite this, most of the components of Bill 251 aim to address human trafficking through a criminal justice approach only. This diverts valuable resources for community support programming that could directly benefit trafficked survivors.

Our recommendations

OCRCC believes that the following recommendations are important in devising relevant policy, strategies, programs, service-planning and allocation of resources to address human trafficking.

  • A community-based approach is the most effective way to support survivors of sexual trafficking – particularly those who do not engage with the criminal justice system[17]
  • Community-based support service approaches should include: believing survivors as a foundational approach to support; culturally safe services and trauma-informed services; applied anti-racist, anti-oppressive, intersectional approaches[18]; and the importance of agencies delivering a continuum of support options[19]
  • In addition to crisis and transitional support, practical assistance – accessible transportation, resources for basic necessities (medication, food, clothing), shelter, and financial support – are necessary in helping people, particularly those in rural, remote or northern locations, to escape exploitative situations. Practical assistance for victims and their families must be an integrated component of trafficking prevention and response
  • Remove colonial boundaries to service access created by mainstream funders and service organizations that prevent or limit effective work with nomadic, transient or vulnerable Indigenous youth and women
  • A coordinated response to human trafficking is needed in local communities so to increase capacity in addressing the complex supportive, practical and safety needs of trafficked persons. With this in mind, coordinated response to human trafficking in local communities ought to be led by gender-based violence organizations and Indigenous leaders/organizations, so to best reflect the complex needs and trends affecting these at-risk groups.
  • Reinvest funding into community led organizations.
  • Reinvest funding in affordable housing, community programs and organizations.
  • Adopt a human rights approach to human trafficking and address the structural barriers including poverty, harmful immigration policies, lack of access to affordable housing including long wait lists, systemic racism, health and social services that contribute to human trafficking.
  • Revision anti-trafficking legislation, including Bill 251, with the above considerations in mind.

Significant progess in addressing sexual violence can be made as a result of commitment and strong leadership. OCRCC calls on Ministries connected to Ontario’s anti-trafficking cross-government action plan to reflect on and respond to these concerns.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) is a network of community-based sexual assault centres in Ontario. Member centres have been supporting survivors of sexual violence and offering prevention education since 1977: services include counselling to survivors of recent and historical sexual violence, accompaniment to hospital, police and court, advocacy and crisis support.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, including sexual exploitation and trafficking, go to https://sexualassaultsupport.ca/support/


[1]Nonomura, Robert. (2020). Trafficking at the Intersections: Racism, Colonialism, Sexism, and Exploitation in Canada. Learning Network Brief (36). London, Ontario: Learning Network, Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. Online: http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/our-work/briefs/brief-36.html: 6.

[2] In a 2018 report produced by Butterfly, many sex workers reported their experiences of human rights violations at the hands of investigators. Migrant sex workers were subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention, and false evidence was used against them to justify their ongoing detention: from Lam, E., Hon Chu, S. 2021 Joint Submission on Bill 251, Combating Human Trafficking act, 2021. Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, HIV Legal Network

[3] Government of the Netherlands. Prostitution. Online: https://www.government.nl/topics/prostitution

[4] Government of the Netherlands. As a prostitute, where can I report unsafe working conditions?. Online: https://www.government.nl/topics/prostitution/question-and-answer/report-unsafe-working-conditions-prostitution

[5] Ka Hon Chu, S. and Elene Lam for The Toronto Star.  May 25, 2021. Bill 251 puts everyone in Ontario at risk of being unduly policed. This is not just a privacy and profiling issue for some — it is a human rights issue for all. Online: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2021/05/25/bill-251-puts-everyone-in-ontario-at-risk-of-being-unduly-policed-this-is-not-just-a-privacy-and-profiling-issue-for-some-it-is-a-human-rights-issue-for-all.html

[6] Babineau, A. for CBC News. Most officers aren’t racist, but the nature of modern policing must be reimagined: Racial profiling is a systemic problem, and not a case of a few bad apples. Feb 10, 2021. Online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/police-racial-profiling-systemic-racism-1.5907553 .

[7] West, C. & Johnson, K. (2013, March). Sexual Violence in the Lives of African American Women. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Online: https://vawnet.org/sites/default/files/materials/files/2016-09/AR_SVAAWomenRevised.pdf

[8] Lam, E., Hon Chu, S. 2021 Joint Submission on Bill 251, Combating Human Trafficking act, 2021. Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, HIV Legal Network

[9] Platt, L. and Pippa Grenfell, Rebecca Meiksin, Jocelyn Elmes, Susan G. Sherman, Teela Sanders, Peninah Mwangi, and Anna-Louise Crago. 2018. Associations between Sex Work Laws and Sex Workers’ Health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies. PLOS Med 15, no. 12.

[10] Ontario Human Rights Commission. Under suspicion: Concerns about racial profiling by police. Online: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/under-suspicion-concerns-about-racial-profiling-police

[11] Perkel, C. for The Canadian Press. April 17, 2021. Ontario walks back new pandemic police powers following widespread backlash. Online: https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-walks-back-new-pandemic-police-powers-following-widespread-backlash-1.5391464

[12] The Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC), 2021. Submission to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy

[13] According to Canadian research, just 33 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases are reported to the police[13], and just 29 are actually recorded as a crime See: Patel, A. October 30, 2014. for Huffington Post Canada. 460,000 Sexual Assaults In Canada Every Year: YWCA Canada. Online: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/30/sexual-assault-canada_n_6074994.html

[14] TransPulse. Health and well-being among racialized trans and non-binary people. Online: https://transpulsecanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Health-and-well-being-among-racialized-trans-and-non-binary-people-FINAL-ua-2.pdf

[15] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Report released June 2019. Online: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/

[16] Ka Hon Chu, S. and Elene Lam for The Toronto Star.  May 25, 2021. Bill 251 puts everyone in Ontario at risk of being unduly policed. This is not just a privacy and profiling issue for some — it is a human rights issue for all. Online: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2021/05/25/bill-251-puts-everyone-in-ontario-at-risk-of-being-unduly-policed-this-is-not-just-a-privacy-and-profiling-issue-for-some-it-is-a-human-rights-issue-for-all.html

[17] According to Canadian research, just 33 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases are reported to the police[17], and just 29 are actually recorded as a crime See: Patel, A. October 30, 2014. for Huffington Post Canada. 460,000 Sexual Assaults In Canada Every Year: YWCA Canada. Online: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/30/sexual-assault-canada_n_6074994.html

[18] Ontario Ministry of the Status of Women and Shore Consulting. November 14, 2017. FINAL REPORT: Review of Sexual Violence and Harassment Counselling Services and Helplines:  6-7.

[19] Ibid, 10.


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