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Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 8, 2015.


This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

A broad approach by the federal government is needed to tackle the issue of human trafficking in Canada, one that recognizes the domestic nature of the crime and is formulated with input from grassroots organizations and survivors, the Indigenous Affairs Minister says.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Carolyn Bennett said the issue requires extensive involvement from at least five federal departments – Justice, Health, Public Safety and Status of Women, along with her own. But before that, "we would make a mistake if we didn't go to the grassroots first," to hear from survivors, and those who work at women's shelters, safe houses and health centres to gather insights and ideas on solutions.

Her comments come after a Globe story showed most recorded human-trafficking cases in Canada are for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and the majority (94 per cent) take place within this country's borders. The three-month investigation explored how indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected as victims of trafficking, and the root causes of why they are at higher risk.

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Dr. Bennett said she was "very grateful" for the Globe story, because "all those elements are pieces that we're hearing coast to coast to coast," in consultations about the mandate and scope of a pending inquiry into Canada's more than 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women. The three-month preinquiry process wrapped up on Monday.

The government said in a statement that nearly 2,000 people participated in the 18 meetings. Details of the inquiry will be announced "in the coming months."

Dr. Bennett noted that the issue of trafficking of indigenous girls and women surfaced in the first consultation in Thunder Bay. The experience underscored the need to include and listen to the voices of survivors, she said. "Their stories of 'it was almost me, it could have been me' are really important as we shed some light on this."

The Globe story also showed an uneven response from the federal government. In 2012, the Conservative government unveiled a $25-million, four-year action plan to prevent human trafficking, prosecute perpetrators and aid victims. Since then, more than 90 per cent of what has been spent appears to have gone to law enforcement and to addressing international trafficking. Less than 10 per cent has been devoted to victim support, and even that hasn't been entirely put to use. Neither Indigenous Affairs nor Status of Women were included in the original allocation of spending under the action plan.

Canada has faced international criticism for its response to the issue. The U.S. State Department noted last year that women from aboriginal communities are "especially vulnerable" to sex trafficking, and called federal funding of special services for victims "inadequate." The United Nations said last year that "insufficient efforts" have been made to address the vulnerability of aboriginal women and girls to trafficking.

The new government says its approach differs from the previous one, in which former prime minister Stephen Harper said the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women wasn't a "sociological phenomenon" but rather a criminal one best handled by police. In contrast, Dr. Bennett said, "our approach is in favour of root causes, in favour of committing sociology, in favour of looking at the vulnerability of these women and girls," one that requires addressing long-standing issues such as access to education and adequate housing.

Several factors raise the risk of being lured by traffickers, among them being in child welfare and a prior history of abuse – factors that disproportionately affect indigenous girls and boys.

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"We are determined to reduce the number of indigenous children in care … to keep the family in tact if at all possible," Dr. Bennett said, adding that, "we know we've got to get going on affordable housing, on women's shelters, on the child-welfare system, on preventing child abuse," and developing a comprehensive human-trafficking strategy in the near term, rather than waiting for a commission's recommendations.

She emphasized the need for more awareness on trafficking in the health-care and justice systems. Among health-care providers, "if you don't think of trafficking, you won't diagnose it. … All health-care workers have to be thinking about it if you're going to be able to help someone exit."

The action plan is set to expire in March. Public Safety Canada said in an e-mail that efforts are "presently under way" to determine next steps in the government's response to trafficking, based on the knowledge gained in the implementation of the action plan.

The government "is committed to working with provinces and territories, indigenous communities, law enforcement, and community organizations to combat exploitation and to support victims and potential victims," it said.

Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu said in an e-mail that her department will keep focusing "on prevention efforts and working with communities to strengthen our response to human trafficking, so that some of society's most vulnerable members will be better protected."

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