OTTAWA (CCN)—Former Conservative MP Joy Smith says she hopes human trafficking will be a ballot issue in October’s federal election.

Smith, who runs the Joy Smith Foundation dedicated to educating Canadians on the issue and helping survivors, said she was glad to see Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer announce steps he would take to strengthen Canada’s efforts to combat human trafficking.

“I would hope that it’s not just an announcement and forgotten about,” said Smith, who devoted her time as an MP to fighting modern human slavery. “I hope human trafficking will become a ballot issue.”

“For the last three and a half years, human traffickers have received the message that fighting their crimes is not a priority,” Scheer said. “A Conservative government under my leadership will ensure that prosecutors have the strongest laws behind them to keep human traffickers off our streets and away from survivors and those they seek to harm.”

Scheer committed to renew the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking that Smith had drafted during the Harper government. Implemented in 2012, the plan expired in 2016.

The Liberal government, however, has been taking steps to address the issue. Last year, Public Safety Canada sponsored a stakeholder consultation entitled “The Way Forward to End Human Trafficking." In addition, the House of Commons Justice Committee made a number of recommendations in a report tabled in December that included a “renewed and enhanced” National Action Plan; efforts to increase public awareness; prevention of victimization of migrant workers; appropriate training of stakeholders and judges; and improved data collection.

The government responded to the recommendations in the spring, outlining what is being done to implement them and indicating a national action plan is in the works.

“We are very pleased human trafficking in Canada is being discussed,” said Barbara Gosse, CEO of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. “This is a non-partisan issue and it can affect every individual and community in the country.”

Gosse said she hopes “human trafficking will be on the agenda of every political party in the country.”

Among the government responses to Justice Committee recommendations was commissioning the Centre to set up a national hotline. The Centre launched the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline on Wednesday, May 29. Anyone who is a victim or survivor of forced prostitution or forced labour, or believes someone else might be, can call the hotline at 1-833-900-1010. 

The confidential, multilingual service will operate 24/7 to “connect victims and survivors with social services, law enforcement, and emergency services, as well as receive tips from the public,” Gosse said.

But Smith and other stakeholders say the proposals on all sides don’t go far enough.

“There are missing pieces,” Smith said. “I could like to see more work on the pornography issue,” she said. “It fuels a lot of the industry. A lot of traffickers use porn to condition young people on what to do with men, and porn influences society as a whole in the wrong way. It dishonours women,” Smith said.

Julia Beazley, director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said government and society need to “take a critical look at what drives” human trafficking.

“Why is it that despite increased awareness of trafficking, enhanced laws and policies and widespread condemnation of the crime, it is still on the rise?” Beazley asked. “What are we missing?”

“There is a real push to look at sex trafficking and prostitution as completely separate and distinct – as though one has nothing to do with the other,” Beazley said. “I think this is at best naïve, and at worst dishonest, and at some point, we'll realize we can't have it both ways. You can't have a thriving, normalized, legitimized sex industry and hope to fight sex trafficking. Demand for paid sex drives sex trafficking.”

Glendyne Gerrard, director of Defend Dignity agrees. “Many Canadians do not see the connection between prostitution and human trafficking even though prostitution is human trafficking's most common endpoint.”

Gerrard wishes Scheer had addressed the prostitution law in his recommendations.

“There is a common narrative we hear in many settings that sex work is legitimate work rather than harmful and exploitative,” said Gerrard. “Defend Dignity believes that in order to combat human trafficking effectively, we must address prostitution and its harms.”

A new Conservative government would strengthen Criminal Code provisions by removing the necessity of proving an element of fear on the part of the trafficked person to gain a conviction. It would amend the code to use the international definition of human trafficking from the Palermo protocol; ensure consecutive sentences for human traffickers; and end automatic bail in order to better protect victims.

“The National Action plan is very important,” Smith said. “That will address a lot of things.” She praised consecutive sentencing, preventing traffickers from eligibility for parole too soon if they have multiple offenses.

“As a starting point, it’s very good, but they have to address the Internet and luring over the Internet,” Smith said. This entails working with the Internet service providers. “It’s a piece that’s extremely important and nobody’s talking about it yet.”

Whether through social media platforms such as Instagram or Facebook, or websites that are designed to sell women and children, Smith said efforts must be made to stop this and take websites down.

Credit cards should also not be used to buy and sell people, either, she said, although “if you take down the websites, credit cards are a moot point.”

“There’s nothing good about the modern-day slave trade,” Smith said. “That’s not what Canada stands for.”

She also defended the prostitution law based on the Nordic model that she crafted during the Harper government that criminalizes the purchase of sex but does not criminalize the women and children who sell it.