Government funding alone not enough to end human trafficking, say N.S. advocates
'Unless we start to address the root causes, we're just going to be doing the same thing over and over'
A recent burst of federal funding intended to prevent human trafficking and support survivors needs to be bolstered by real policy change to be truly impactful, say advocates in Nova Scotia.
The province has one of the highest rates of human trafficking cases in Canada, but those who work with survivors and at-risk populations say the root causes of the issue are not always understood.
"We can provide all of the services, but unless there's real systemic change, unless we start to address some of the root causes, we're just going to be doing the same thing over and over again," said Charlene Gagnon, manager of research, advocacy and new initiatives at the YWCA Halifax, which provides services and support to help people exit the sex trade.
The organization receives a portion of $22.4 million in federal funding announced in December to combat human trafficking. Ottawa has said the funding will help 63 organizations across the country offer counselling, housing, mental health services and employment services, as well as other supports.
"Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable," Natalie Huneault, a spokesperson for Women and Gender Equality Canada, said in an email to CBC News.
"It disproportionately impacts women, girls and marginalized individuals, as well as their families and communities."
'There needs to be some political will'
Gagnon applauds the financial support, but said "there are still a lot of gaps in the system" when it comes to addressing the circumstances that contribute to someone entering the sex trade. Those circumstances can include a lack of housing, job opportunities, addiction services or child care for marginalized groups.
"Sometimes they are coerced and forced, sometimes they're doing it because they have no other economical means to support themselves and their families," said Gagnon.
"Most of the people who are engaged in the sex trade, regardless of how they are engaged, do experience high levels of economic insecurity, high levels of substance issues, high levels of homelessness, high levels of violence in their lives."
In addition to recognizing the many socio-economic factors involved, Gagnon said there needs to be an awareness of the ways in which some people are trafficked. Those methods can be much more subtly nefarious than depicted in movies like Taken, the 2008 thriller about a teenage girl kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring during a European holiday.
"We want people to understand that you don't have to have been blindfolded and handcuffed and trunked for us to recognize your situation as being exploitative," said Gagnon.
Gagnon said there are many cases where people are manipulated into the sex trade under the guise of pursuing a romantic relationship with their trafficker. In cases where that leads to criminalization, the consequences can be detrimental to the survivor, said Susan Ayles, program manager for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia.
"The factors that go into making folks vulnerable to exploitation or trafficking are very similar, if not the same, as criminalization," she said.
The society, which helps people access safe housing, offers education surrounding the sex trade and provides one-on-one support, was also approved for the federal funding announced last month.
"It's a human trafficking and exploitation fund, but really it's [us] looking at addressing the underlying causes, because that's the only way we're actually going to get to the root of it," said Ayles.
Gagnon said sex trafficking has a long history in Nova Scotia, yet the issue has never been brought to the forefront. It's a complex problem, she said, that no organization can fix on its own.
"We have a lofty goal of eliminating trafficking and exploitation. That's not going to be done with only services," she said. "There needs to be some political will and funding and investments, and also making it a priority to attack it at that policy and legislative level."