The B.C. government has released a plan to begin combating human trafficking in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, by training medical staff to recognize the signs of sexual exploitation and forced labour.

The three-year plan, developed by B.C.'s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons, aims to work with agencies that deal with vulnerable people and to make sure employees can spot the victims and offer assistance.

'It can involve forcing someone to perform acts like exotic dancing, or prostitution; forcing someone to work in illegal drug labs...' —Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond

Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond, who announced BC's Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking on Friday, says human trafficking is a much bigger problem in the province than we think.

"Human trafficking is a modern-day slavery that is a serious violation of human rights," Bond said. 

"It can involve forcing someone to perform acts like exotic dancing, or prostitution; forcing someone to work in illegal drug labs; forcing someone to work on a construction site, in a restaurant, in a factory or on a farm for long hours with little or no pay."

The Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons says it's dealt with more that 160 cases involving potentially-trafficked people in B.C. since July 2007. But it also says the true number of cases is likely much higher; spotting a victim of human trafficking isn't easy, even for those who regularly encounter vulnerable people.

Surrey Memorial launches training effort

Tara Wilke, a forensic nurse examiner at Surrey Memorial Hospital, says front-line health workers need special training to be able to detect the signs of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

"We know that at some point trafficked persons will receive medical care; however, at present time, health care professionals are not equipped to recognize or offer the appropriate support," she said.


Minister of Justice and Attorney General Shirley Bond announced a three-year action plan to prevent human trafficking and identify and protect victims of trafficking Friday. (B.C. Government Newsroom Flickr)

The pilot plan announced Friday launches at Surrey Memorial Hospital, a recent recipient of an $18,000 grant funded by money seized from crime busts. Wilke said the hospital will develop training kits for its staff, adding that many have already seen, and helped, a number of victims.

"Without disclosing any particulars about our patients, our forensic nursing service team has seen predominantly Canadian girls who are being trafficked and exploited," she said.

A number of community groups in B.C. also received over $145,000 in civil forfeiture grants in March to pay for programs to help potential human trafficking victims.

Bond said regardless of who wins the spring election, she hopes the program will stay in place.

"I have every confidence that whatever the outcome of the May election is, it doesn't change the drive of any government to support people that find themselves in this circumstance," she said.

With files from the CBC's Emily Elias