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As the federal government launches multiple consultations on human trafficking across Canada, advocates say immediate measures should be taken to better support victims and tackle the issue.

The federal budget unveiled last month included new funding for a national human-trafficking hotline. But that was the only measure that specifically addressed the problem, and the prior two budgets did not announce any dedicated funding for anti-trafficking efforts.

Canada’s national action plan on human trafficking expired in March, 2016, and Public Safety Canada, the lead federal department on the file, says there’s no time frame for the creation of a new plan.

Some advocates are concerned this is not a priority for a government that often cites its commitment to gender equality and curbing violence against women.

“I would like to know why it is taking so long to renew the national action plan considering the fact that human trafficking is a human-rights violation, targets vulnerable Canadians and sex trafficking is the most extreme form of violence against girls and women,” said Diane Redsky, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre Inc.

“Front-line service organizations like … Ma Mawi can’t keep up with the number of vulnerable Indigenous girls being victimized. This has to become a priority for government.”

The issue crosses governmental jurisdictions. The current consultation, by the House of Commons standing committee on justice and human rights, began last month and is being conducted across Canada. The committee aims to table recommendations by June to the government on whether to make changes to the Criminal Code or take other actions to address the issue.

The other consultation will be run by Public Safety, which declined interview requests with an expert on the subject matter. The department said it will provide more information on this round of consultations “in due course.”

Testimony at the public hearings so far highlights the extent, and evolving nature, of the crime.

The number of police-reported incidents of human trafficking is “on the rise,” according to Statistics Canada, and remains highly underreported. Its 2009 to 2016 data show 95 per cent of victims are women and most of them are young – more than a quarter are under 18.

The agency recorded 340 human trafficking violations in 2016. Most reported cases in Canada involve sexual exploitation (as opposed to labour trafficking), and most of the activity involves domestic victims rather than cross-border activity.

Human trafficking is often referred to as a low-risk, high-profit crime – one that inflicts severe trauma on victims. While hidden, it’s not uncommon. In Canada’s largest city, Toronto police made 52 arrests last year related to sex trafficking. They found 60 victims – more than half of them under 16.

The nature of the crime is shifting. “Emerging trends we are seeing is more recruitment out of middle schools and high schools,” said Detective Sergeant Nunzio Tramontozzi, head of the Toronto Police Service’s humantrafficking enforcement team, along with “the use of Airbnb by pimps and victims.”

Police in Montreal are also seeing pimps use short-term rentals such as Airbnb. “It’s a trend,” along with the use of apartments and lofts, where anonymity is greater and there are no hotel front desks or security to go through, said Commander Michel Bourque, head of the Montreal police force’s sexual-exploitation unit.

Airbnb said in a statement that it is “committed to working with law-enforcement officials and anti-trafficking advocates to prevent these horrible crimes.”

Montreal police made 65 arrests last year for human trafficking or related offences. They interviewed 234 victims or potential victims, of whom 23 per cent were under 18, Cmdr. Bourque said.

Canada’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking began in 2012 under the Harper government and ran for almost four years, with the goal of co-ordinating federal government efforts on the issue and starting new initiatives such as awareness campaigns.

The Trudeau government’s evaluation of that plan found “a continued need for such a plan” at the federal level, Public Safety spokesman Andrew Gowing noted, and it’s also needed to meet Canada’s international commitments to combat human trafficking. Still, he added, “timelines for the development of a new strategy have not been determined.”

The review of the previous plan, published in December, recommended enhanced national data collection and closer partnerships between government and civil society, Indigenous communities and the private sector. It was also critical of the previous plan, saying federal partners did not receive any new, dedicated funding for related activities and there was “no clear evidence” that the plan had raised awareness among at-risk populations.

The recent federal budget did commit $14.5-million over five years to a national hotline, beginning in 2018-19, with $2.9-million a year “ongoing,” which will help connect callers with victim services and law enforcement. It will also have the capacity to gather data to better understand the nature and scope of trafficking in Canada.

It’s a move advocates had lobbied for, said Barbara Gosse, chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. Canada will join the United States and Mexico in having such a national service, and her centre is working with the Washington-based Polaris Project, a technical adviser that has created the largest available database on trafficking activity in the United States. She hopes to see the hotline established this year.

“The machinery of government is slow, “ she said. “We’re hopeful they can take this piece and fund it independent of any further consultation, so we can get this up and running soon.”

In Niagara Falls, Ont., the YWCA saw 134 trafficking or suspected trafficking cases in the region last year alone. Many survivors are dealing with complex trauma and physical health problems while struggling to navigate the justice system and find stable housing and employment.

“These individuals have unique needs, and currently our systems are not necessarily set up for that,” said Elisabeth Zimmermann, the YWCA’s executive director. Public policy needs to recognize that “if someone is coming out of periods of being trafficked, that a lot of different services need to be specific to their needs,” with specially trained staff and a client-centred approach.

A new national action plan should also more fully address labour trafficking, which is often overlooked, said Nicole Barrett, director of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at the University of British Columbia, who has long studied the issue.