Cross-country consultations to address 'nationwide' problem of human trafficking begin in Halifax
'We know that there's thousands of people across the country who are being trafficked,' says federal MP
Jennifer Holleman chokes up as she leafs through an album of photos of her smiling daughter.
"This is how I remember her and that's how I want to remember her," she said in an interview with CBC in her home in Beaver River, N.S., near Yarmouth.
Holleman's daughter, Maddison Fraser, was a two-time Canadian national boxing champion who died in a car crash with a drunk driver in Edmonton in 2015. She was 21.
Her mother said messages found on her cellphone after she died indicate the driver was a john. Holleman knew her daughter worked in the sex trade — both in Nova Scotia and in Alberta, where she had been living at the time.
"She'd been everywhere. I have record of her being in Brampton and Mississauga and Toronto, and she was in Red Deer. She was everywhere," said Holleman.
Holleman was in Halifax on Monday to share her family's tragic story with the House of Commons standing committee on justice and human rights, as it kicked off a cross-country tour that will hear from survivors of human trafficking and people who provide support to victims.
Twelve MPs of all political stripes will travel to five major Canadian cities in an effort to learn more about human trafficking, which Nova Scotia's RCMP recently referred to as a hidden epidemic.
'How do we prevent this problem'
Their study is wide-ranging, examining everything from initiatives to combat the issue in Canada, to protection for survivors, to the effectiveness of the country's current legal framework.
"We know that there's thousands of people across the country who are being trafficked," said committee chairman and Montreal MP Anthony Housefather, following Monday's private roundtable discussion in Halifax.
"There are very few people who are being charged — even less who are being convicted. So we need to look at the criminal law but our committee also wants to go further than that and look at how do we prevent this problem."
Barbara Gosse, CEO of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, will be speaking to the committee when it stops in Toronto and plans to reiterate the importance of a national human-trafficking hotline, for which funding was earmarked in the recent federal budget.
Gosse said it's important to make sure that hotline actually happens to provide another entry point for victims.
"To basically provide them with a safety net where they can call in from anywhere in the country and get a localized response on this crime," she said.
Under Stephen Harper, the federal government launched a national action plan to combat human trafficking in 2012, but it expired in March 2016.
Human trafficking became a specific criminal code offence in Canada in 2005. As of November 2017, charges have been laid in 455 cases across the country, according to the RCMP; 118 have resulted in convictions so far and 296 remain before the courts.
No one was ever charged in the case involving Holleman's daughter, although police in Grand Prairie, Alta., say they have reopened the investigation last July, declining to say why.
Holleman said she welcomed the opportunity to share her family's story with decision-makers, as she wants them to know how destructive human trafficking is.
Canada needs more protection for survivors and stiffer penalties for offenders, she said.
"I don't have a lot of faith in our justice system right now, so to speak to the people that are actually at the top that can make the difference … I'm a little bit excited about it. But I won't get my hopes up until I actually hear them say, 'You know what, we've concluded our cross-country and boy we have some big changes to be made.'"
Following the Halifax meeting, Holleman said she felt the MPs had listened.
"It was moving. It was compelling. It was clear that this is a problem that is nationwide," said Housefather.
Consultations will continue Tuesday in Montreal, followed by visits to Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, all with the goal of providing recommendations on preventing and understanding human trafficking in Canada.