Ontario promises to spend up to $72 million to fight human trafficking

File photo of young woman working in the sex trade in Canada. Global News

TORONTO – The Ontario government vowed Thursday to tackle the “deplorable and inhumane crime” of human trafficking with a plan meant to increase awareness, help investigate and prosecute cases and boost support for victims in the province.

The plan, dubbed the Strategy to End Human Trafficking, would see the province split up to $72 million between several ministries over four years as it strives to better co-ordinate resources to take on what officials describe as a growing and complex problem.

It includes the creation of a provincial anti-trafficking co-ordination office meant to foster information sharing between police, social services, child welfare and other sectors, as well as help implement culturally appropriate strategies for indigenous peoples affected by human trafficking.

The government said it will also establish a specialized provincial prosecution team to tackle human trafficking cases and advise local Crown attorneys and law enforcement, though no timeline has been set for either initiative.

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“Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable in our society and they use different tactics to control, abuse and exploit victims for their own financial gain,” said Tracy MacCharles, the minister for women’s issues.

“Survivors experience serious and long-term trauma. This will not be tolerated in Ontario.”

The province also promised to expand its victim quick-response and victim witness assistance programs. The former provides emergency funds to help pay for travel costs, replacement of identification documents and other expenses, while the latter offers around-the-clock support for victims and assists them in navigating the services available to them.

Premier Kathleen Wynne pledged earlier this year that the province would have a comprehensive strategy to combat human trafficking by the end of June.

She said at the time that the plan would be “much broader” than a private member’s bill introduced by the Progressive Conservative critic for women’s issues, Laurie Scott.

READ MORE: Conservatives wants Ontario to do more to combat human trafficking

But Scott said Thursday that while the plan announced by the Liberals is “a step in the right direction,” it falls short of what’s needed to combat a “heinous crime” that threatens the safety of Canadians, many of them still children.

“There’s nothing substantial for municipal police forces especially…If you don’t have frontline police given the proper resources, how are we to rescue these children and young adults?” she said.

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Nor does it give police the power to enforce protection orders against traffickers on behalf of the victims, and to assess punitive measures if breached, something Scott’s bill would allow. The bill would also let victims seek compensation in court and add convicted traffickers to the province’s sex offender registry.

“We see this as a growing crime…and yet the government is not addressing this in any meaningful way,” she said.

The New Democrats, meanwhile, said they were pleased to see the government take steps to address human trafficking and looked forward to hearing more details of the plan.

“I urge the government to incorporate the voices and expertise of survivors into the strategy, to ensure that resources and supports are specialized and trauma-informed, and responsive to the unique needs of victims of trafficking. It will also be important to provide training for law enforcement officials and front-line agencies,” the party’s women’s issues critic, Peggy Satler, said in a statement.

READ MORE: 3 arrested after 13-year-old girl forced into sex trade: Toronto police

Cynthia Bland, founder of Voice Found, a survivor-led non-profit that educates people about commercial sexual exploitation said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the plan, though she would like it to adopt some of the provisions of Scott’s bill.

“I’d be interested in seeing how it actually rolls out and what type of funding will be available specifically to frontline agencies that are struggling to support people,” she said. “It would be good to see multi-year funding commitments, we spend a lot of time having to reapply for funding all the time.”

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The government said Ontario accounts for 65 per cent of human trafficking cases reported to police nationally.

A report issued in December by a legislative committee found Ontario has become a “major hub” for human trafficking and sexual violence, with most of the victims being local underage girls and young women.

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