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The idea was born over drinks, around a campfire in Ontario’s Lake Muskoka region.
A group of students with little in common but an interest in human rights and international affairs were having an animated discussion about some of the world's biggest problems. And instead of just talking, they decided to try and fix one.
They chose human trafficking: put simply, the sale of human beings for sex, forced labour and other forms of slavery.
Within a year the University of Calgary students had formed the Future Group — an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking — and raised enough money to send several of their members to Cambodia, where they worked with locals to combat the issue and help victims.
Benjamin Perrin was the founding member of the Future Group.
“We had a lot of faith in the ability of a small group of thoughtful, committed people to have an impact,” he remembers.
Barely a decade after the campfire discussion and his ambitious undergraduate project, Perrin is active on virtually every level of the fight against human trafficking in Canada.
The University of British Columbia professor is now a researcher, a law reform activist and Canada’s leading — and perhaps only — expert on human trafficking. In June, the U.S. Department of State recognized him in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report as one of nine global heroes in the fight against modern-day slavery. He is the only Canadian ever to have received this award.
Canadians for sale
The Future Group started its work in Southeast Asia but Perrin says he moved his focus to Canada when he realized that human trafficking had “come home."
The U.S. State Department identifies Canada as a source, transit and destination country for trafficking. This means people from outside Canada are brought into the country to be sold into slavery or are brought through Canada en route to other countries. It also means Canadian citizens — especially women and children — are being trafficked and used as slaves within our borders.
Perrin quickly realized he needed more than his undergraduate degree in international business to continue his work with human trafficking. So he went to law school at the University of Toronto and then moved on to do graduate work in law at McGill.
As part of his master’s research at McGill in 2006, Perrin led a study that gave Canada a failing grade for a record of dealing with victims of trafficking that the report called an “international embarrassment.” Perrin found that victims in Canada were often detained or deported, sometimes treated as illegal migrants or prostitutes and given no access to medical care.
A mere two months later then-Citizenship and Immigration Minister Monte Solberg signed into law the recommendations Perrin’s report called for, giving victims access to temporary residence permits and health care.
Soon after, Perrin was asked to be Solberg’s senior policy advisor.
You can't solve a problem if you don't know what it is
One of his biggest challenges was getting government officials and police to understand human trafficking.
“They acknowledged the problem, that was the first step,” says Perrin. “But they did not know how vast the problem was or how it was taking place.”
“They were continually saying they did not have information.”
A major reason for the lack of data is that there was no field in immigration databases to flag trafficking victims until May 2006.
“So all the trafficking cases federally recognized before 2006 are invisible,” Perrin laments. “They’re buried away in databases with literally millions of entries and there’s no way to identify them.”
The crime of human trafficking wasn't in Canada’s Criminal Code until 2005 and the legislation wasn't used very much until recently — not because human trafficking didn’t happen before, but because law enforcement officers didn’t know the crime existed.
The RCMP launched a Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre in late 2005 to address this problem, but educating an entire police force takes time.
“Lack of awareness is still very much a challenge,” says Sgt. Marie-Claude Arsenault, the officer in charge of the centre.
But they’ve come a long way. Since 2008 the centre has held human trafficking awareness workshops in 20 Canadian cities and trained more than 16,000 law enforcement personnel and prosecutors.
Arsenault says understanding is growing. Police across the country have laid more than 20 charges and there have been five convictions in the past year. She expects this number will grow.
Sex trafficking and Vancouver 2010
Sex trafficking has been known to flourish during international sporting events as a result of an increased demand for prostitution. Following the Athens Olympics in 2004, the Greek Ministry of Public Safety found that the number of known human trafficking victims nearly doubled the year of the event.
Although a study led by the Sex Industry Worker Safety Action Group in June suggested that the 2010 Olympics won’t lead to a sex trafficking surge in Vancouver, Perrin says it’s irresponsible to dismiss the possibility.
“The risk that another million visitors to this area will make it worse is a risk that needs to be taken seriously.”
“No one has a crystal ball. But when you have a problem that currently exists and there’s a risk of it being exasperated then you surely must have an obligation to take preventative action.”
Perrin points to England’s preparations for the 2012 Olympics in London, where for years an assistant police chief commissioner has been responsible for dealing with sex and labour trafficking concerns.
Canada has no such strategy.
A long way to go
“There are people working hard on this problem but there’s a lack of coordination and resources,” Perrin says.
Six years after the U.S. State Department recommended Canada develop a national strategy to combat trafficking, and five years after the Canadian government set a mandate to do so, there is still no plan.
“No one has a crystal ball. But when you have a problem that currently exists and there’s a risk of it being exasperated then you surely must have an obligation to take preventative action.” – Benjamin Perrin
Alberta, B.C. and Manitoba are the only provinces to have comprehensive systems in place to help victims get the support they need. And although Ontario is a major destination for foreign sex and labour trafficking, it has no designated centre to assist victims, and they have to go through a maze of bureaucracy to get support.
As well, Perrin argues that sentencing so far has been seriously inadequate. Imani Nakpangi, Canada’s first convicted trafficker, made more than $400,000 over a period of three years by selling two teenaged girls for sex. Nakpangi drove a BMW and owned a large home in Niagara Falls. With credit for time served before his trial, Nakpangi will spend less time in prison than he did exploiting the girls, who were 14 and 15 at the time. If tried in some U.S. courts Nakpangi would have served at least 15 years.
Conservative MP Joy Smith of Winnipeg — another major figure in Canada’s fight against human trafficking — is currently trying to pass Bill C-268, which will set the mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking children at five years. This is lower than most countries with trafficking legislation but better than the current minimum of zero. The bill made it through the House of Commons at the end of September and will now go to the Senate.
Smith says Perrin was an integral part of helping her put the bill together.
“I have a very deep respect for Benjamin Perrin,” she says. “He has been constantly on the front lines.”
Perrin is currently working on a book that will be the first comprehensive study of human trafficking in Canada. Journey of Injustice: Canada's Underground World of Human Trafficking, is to be published by Penguin Group (Canada) in October 2010. He says he hopes it will be part of a growing national movement to prevent trafficking, protect victims and prosecute offenders.
“It’s a very grave, serious crime. One of the most serious crimes in the Criminal Code and yet it’s not recognized that way.”
Frontpage photo by Martin Dee courtesy of UBC Faculty of Public Affairs
What exactly is human trafficking?
The term trafficking in persons or human trafficking is misleading; it places emphasis on the transaction aspect of a crime that is more accurately described as slavery.
Source: The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons
Human trafficking in Canada
Source: U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report 2009
Human trafficking around the world
Source: Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking