Monday, August 15, 2011

B.C. flags in fight against human trafficking

While other provinces are boosting their budgets to address problem, Victoria cuts funding

Little more than a month ago, Solicitor-General Shirley Bond was talking tough, calling human trafficking both "unacceptable" and "a terrible crime."

She had good reason. In 2007, British Columbia became the first (and it remains the only) province to have an independent Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons (OCTIP) and staff dedicated to helping identify and assist victims - both foreign and domestic.

On June 22, Bond announced that OCTIP had launched an online training program for first responders that had been partly funded by the federal government. In her press release, the solicitor-general noted that the "unique training program" was particularly important to "help prevent the exploitation of aboriginal people."

Information on human trafficking is scant; prosecutions few. But what is known is that worldwide an estimated twomillion children alone are trafficked into some form of forced labour.

In Canada, most trafficking is domestic, most victims end up in prostitution and most are aboriginal, which is why one of OCTIP's six staff did nothing but aboriginal outreach and research analysis.

In the past four years, OCTIP has assisted nearly 100 victims gain temporary-residence permits, find housing and get access to health care. It has developed youth-focused educational materials as a preventive measure.

It has distributed more than 400,000 brochures so that people are better able to identify victims, telling them who to call and what to do if they find them, and operated a 24-hour toll-free help line.

Its work was recognized in the U.S. State Department's 2011 report on trafficking as being unique in Canada and an initiative that ought to be copied throughout the country.

But last Friday, the day before a long weekend, the stand-alone office ceased to exist. And its executive director, Robin Pike, had her last day at the office, even though deputy solicitor-general David Morhart said in OCTIP's threeyear status report in December that its success owed much to her vision and to her and her team's dedication and passion.

Although Bond was quick enough to take credit for the office's good work, a ministry spokesperson said the solicitorgeneral "regrettably" has not been available for interviews for the past two days.

Instead, the spokesperson released a gobbledygook statement that says "human trafficking remains a priority for this government" and suggests that somehow OCTIP "remains a distinct entity with a clear focus and mandate."

It says that even though the OCTIP budget is now $300,000 - it had been as high as $650,000 due to grants from the federal government - and its staff has been reduced from a high of seven to four, with one of those staffers deemed to be so highly specialized that she will not be replaced when she goes on maternity leave in mid-September.

In plain English, OCTIP has been swallowed by the Community Safety and Crime Prevention Branch of the solicitorgeneral's ministry.

Apparently, the 100 staff there weren't busy enough already with victims-of-crime services, violence-against-women programs and crime-prevention initiatives.

The decision to slash the staff and funding stunned individuals and groups who work with trafficking victims.

Maj. Brian Venables of the Salvation Army called the decision "perplexing" and "distressing."

"At a time when the rest of the world is catching up, in British Columbia we pull the 'chute on the office," he said.

The Salvation Army runs Deborah's Gate in Vancouver, which is Canada's only safe house for trafficking victims. It provides specialized trauma and legal counselling for victims, most of whom are firstnations women and girls.

Although the number of victims is not on the same scale as domestic violence, Venables said, "It is still a priority for us - and, I thought, for the government - to make sure that it is not pandemic."

The decision certainly bucks the national trend.

The federal government is contemplating a $20-million national anti-trafficking action plan. Ontario has budgeted $2 million over three years for additional policing and housing; Alberta and Manitoba are also boosting their budgets.

Joy Smith called the gutting of OCTIP without consultation "not only irresponsible, it's reckless."

Smith is the Manitoba Conservative MP whose private member's bill was enacted last year to provide a mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers dealing in children.

Benjamin Perrin, a University of B.C. professor and author of Invisible Chains: Canada's Underground World of Human Trafficking, was incredulous that the office can remain independent with no executive director, fewer staff and a reduced budget.

To put the $300,000 budget in perspective, he noted that it's little more than what the average trafficker can expect to earn from a single victim each year.

With a Highway of Tears, the horrific legacy of Willie Pickton and the ever-present prospect of migrant ships landing on B.C. shores, the solicitor-general is wrong.

Instead of doing less by reducing an already meagre budget and by eroding and diluting a small, dedicated staff, she and her government ought to be doing more.

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