HALIFAX—Home can be a place of comfort and refuge, but it can also be used as a tool for exploitation.
Perpetrators of human trafficking often control their victims by controlling their access to shelter and other basic survival needs.
That’s why, according Charlene Gagnon, offering victims and survivors a safe place to live is an essential part of supporting their exit from the exploitive cycle, and it’s why the YWCA Halifax’s latest program will be a milestone in the fight against human trafficking in Nova Scotia.
Gagnon manages anti-trafficking initiatives at the YWCA Halifax and says human trafficking “is not a new issue to Nova Scotia,” but the attention afforded to it has been gradually changing, both locally and across Canada.
In 2005, a trio of amendments to the Criminal Code prohibited human trafficking, specifically, for the first time. Further legislative changes have continued to trickle in since then, and Gagnon says that as laws have emerged to address human trafficking, public awareness has grown.
By shedding more light on the issue, front line workers — like social workers, police, school guidance counsellors — are better able to identify victims. A few years ago, YWCA staff started identifying more and more human trafficking victims, but Gagnon said there was no real system in place to fully respond.
Particularly when it came to safe housing.
“We kind of knew it right from the very beginning, there has been a lack of housing that is specific to this kind of victimization.”
In 2016, the non-profit applied for and was granted federal funding to take a closer look at the issue in Nova Scotia and develop a plan for filling the service gaps.
That research wrapped in March 2019 with a plan for a pilot program called Safe Spaces.
The YWCA is aiming for a fall 2019 launch of the program, which will offer emergency housing to youth between 13 and 24 who are fleeing trafficking. As with other trafficking services at the YWCA, police, community agencies and child welfare services anywhere in the province will be able to refer to Safe Spaces.
“It’s pretty critical in those first three to six months of making that transition out for their housing to be really safe and secure,” Gagnon said.
The program will be non-gender-specific, although most trafficking victims are girls and women.
Safe Spaces has funding for four years, part of which was secured earlier this month when Ottawa committed $4.7 million to the Nova Scotia government through the Gun and Gang Violence Action Fund.
Despite the name, more than half of the funds for the first two years of the investment are going to human trafficking initiatives. Of more than $820,000, YWCA is receiving more than $183,000 and Nova Scotia RCMP are receiving $243,000 for seconding officers to human trafficking work.
When making the funding announcement in Halifax, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey acknowledged that gun violence has been declining in Nova Scotia, and federal Minister for Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair said gangs are less common in Nova Scotia than elsewhere in Canada.
Human trafficking, on the other hand, has been on the rise, according to Furey, and in 2016, Nova Scotia recorded the highest number of trafficking incidents of any Canadian province or territory.
Simultaneous to the research and preparation for the safe housing program, Gagnon and her YWCA colleagues have been leading the Nova Scotia Trafficking Elimination Partnership (NSTEP) with more than a dozen other non-profits, police and the local and provincial governments.
NSTEP started in 2016 and is slated to continue until 2021. Gagnon said that at the end of the partnership, the collaborators intend to table a strategy for addressing human trafficking for the province. In the meantime, support programs have already stemmed from of NSTEP’s work.
Since 2018, the YWCA has added front line workers to directly support youth who are either at risk of being exploited or who are exiting trafficking situations, and a family outreach worker.
Gagnon said collaboration — like the kind seen in NSTEP — is an important part of addressing human trafficking, as there’s a wide variety of perspectives and experiences. When in conflict, they can stymy progress.
Human trafficking and sex work are often conflated, and some members of NSTEP support complete abolition of sex work while others support it as a means of independence and survival.
Consensus on a definition for human trafficking poses a problem for fighting it. A 2018 federal justice committee report on human trafficking recognized “the absence of a common and consistent definition among stakeholders,” and said it can contribute to under-reporting and challenges in collecting evidence for court.
The members of NSTEP, however, did arrive at an eight-point common definition of sexualized human trafficking and exploitation. It acknowledges a spectrum of opinion when it comes to the concept of choice, but unequivocally calls trafficking a form of slavery and a human rights violation.
Gagnon said isolation and control are the hallmarks of trafficking that everyone in the partnership agrees on.
She said the definition is important because “perpetrators have their playbook,” and members of the partnership have to know what they’re targeting.
Correction - May 5, 2019: This article was edited from a previous version that misstated the name of the YWCA program was ‘Safe Landings’. In fact, it is called ‘Safe Spaces’.
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