Human trafficking has often been described as a modern-day form of slavery. The BC Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking defines trafficking as “the recruiting, harbouring and/or controlling of a person for the purpose of exploitation.” In 2000, the United Nations adopted an international treaty, known as the Trafficking in Persons Protocol, to fight human trafficking. Amongst other things, this document defined human trafficking as Act + Means + Purpose = Human Trafficking.

Human trafficking is a serious criminal offence in Canada. Both the Criminal Code of Canada and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act criminalize all aspects of human trafficking. The four human trafficking offences in the Criminal Code are summarized below.

Trafficking of a person (Section 279.01) makes it a crime to participate in certain acts involving another person for the purpose of exploiting them. The sentence ranges from months or years to life imprisonment for cases involving kidnapping, aggravated assault, sexual assault or death.

Trafficking of a person under the age of eighteen years (Section 279.011) stipulates a mandatory minimum sentence of six years’ imprisonment where the offence involves aggravated assault, sexual assault or death of the trafficked child, and a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in other cases.

Material benefit (Section 279.02) makes it a crime to receive a financial or other material benefit knowing the benefit was a result of human trafficking. There is a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.

Withholding or destroying travel or identification documents (Section 279.03), for example someone’s passport or visa, for the purpose of committing human trafficking, is an offence. There is a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

On Dec. 6, 2014, the Government of Canada enacted The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (known as Bill C-36) which holds the buyers of sex accountable, as well as any third party who benefits from commercial sexual exploitation. With this legislation, Canada joined a number of countries that have already enacted similar legislation (Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Ireland) and a growing number of other countries currently deliberating demand-focused legislation that will make the buying of sexual services illegal: France, Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Israel. This is referred to as the Nordic Model of law.

The United Nations defines migrant smuggling as the “procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident.” It is illegally moving people across borders, usually at their request.

Human trafficking is characterized as activity which exploits another human being. The UN definition of human trafficking includes the recruiting, transporting, or harboring of people by means of threat, coercion, or fraud, for the purpose of exploitation. That exploitation can come in many different forms, including sexual exploitation, forced slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs.

There are some important legal distinctions to be made between human trafficking and migrant smuggling that are frequently overlooked. The most important, and the hardest to distinguish, is consent. Migrants consent to being smuggled and their relationship with the smuggler stops once they have reached their destination. As the law suggests, victims of human trafficking do not always consent to the end result of the transaction, even if at times they initially consent to what they think will be the end: a new job, for example; or being transported to a new location. The initial consent becomes legally irrelevant to the crime once the trafficker has used threat, coercion, or fraud to exploit the victim.

Vulnerable groups that are at risk of becoming trafficked, include migrant workers, migrant women, new immigrants, at-risk youth and those who are socially or economically disadvantaged. This latter group might include youth, teenage runaways or those who may have been lured to urban centres or who have gone of their own free will with the hopes of bettering their lives. Recent convictions for human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation demonstrate that Canadian girls and women are often victims.

According to the 2006 Canadian Census, Aboriginal peoples (North American Indian – 1st Nation, Metis, and Inuit) made up 3.8% of the total population, with just over half (51.2%) of the Aboriginal population being female. This is nearly 4% of the total female population in Canada. Although they are only a small % of the population, Aboriginal women and girls are severely over-represented in sexual exploitation and trafficking in comparison to the general Canadian population (Seshia, 2005; Sethi, 2007; Saewyc et al, 2008; Sikka, 2009; Farley, Lynne and Cotton, 2005; Ursel et al, 2007 Barrett, 2010).

In an extensive research report conducted over the period of two years and involving some 181 participants in the sex trade in Vancouver, 31.1% of the women participating indicated they were Aboriginal (Cler-Cunningham and Christensen, 2001,p.1v).