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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Sex Slaves in Canada

A lucrative criminal trade flourishes under the radar of indifferent governments

Amir Attaran

Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking

Benjamin Perrin

Viking Canada

298 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780670064533

If you are reading this magazine in casual repose, such as in the bedroom or bath, please move to the nearest computer and go to this website: Most likely you will recognize it as the Canadian version of Craigslist, that great entrepôt of used toasters. Click on the largest city near where you live. You will then be transported to another website, whose address you may note (if your browser cooperates) is flanked by a little purple peace sign. It serves no purpose, but must be there as a reminder of how hip, friendly and helpful the people at Craigslist really are.

So helpful that they can help you find another person’s captured body, to rent and to get laid.

At the bottom of the page, locate the “services” heading and click on the link labelled “erotic.” After a sanctimonious legal disclaimer that “suspected human trafficking and exploitation of minors should be reported to law enforcement,” you are transported to the Craigslist pages that Benjamin Perrin, author of Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking, accuses of showcasing human trafficking victims in Canada.

He is right. In minutes, one can find on Craigslist females who, to photographic appearances, are not women old enough to sell sex voluntarily, but girls. By a curious statistical anomaly, a large number are advertised to be a lawful 19 or 20 years of age—a touch older than the age of consent for prostitution, which is 18. This solicitation from the Ottawa Craigslist is typical:

5″ 8, 120LBS 34B-26-36

The accompanying photo of “Our Little Pocahontas” is of a pouty girl, possibly aboriginal, enrobed in baby fat and looking about 15 years old. Whoever owns and is generously offering to rent her is keen that her enthusiasm for bareback (i.e., condomless) blowjobs “& MORE!” not be overlooked, and promises a “TRUE G . F .E” [sic]—meaning a true girlfriend experience. (The author informed Craigslist and the Ottawa police about the advertisement on October 6. By the time of publication, the ad was listed as having expired.) (If that wording seems vulgar, it is—but it is also banal by Craigslist standards.)

Now try this exploration again, but this time, pretend you are American and use Craigslist’s U.S. website: <>. The preposterous purple peace sign is there, but the link titled “erotic” is not. This particular method of accessing the sexual services of plushed-up teenagers is absent because dozens of attorneys general in the United States criminally investigated Craigslist for facilitating and profiting from those services. Craigslist responded with bad grace: its CEO accused critics of “harassment” and whinged about journalists “gratuitously trashing respected organizations.” (See “For Amber Lyon, CNN,” Jim Buckmaster’s blog entry for August 30, 2010, at

So the American authorities issued subpoenas. Craigslist caved.

Which raises this interesting question: why does Craigslist still sell erotic ads in Canada, after stopping in the United States? Evidently because Canadian authorities lack the cojones to investigate, prosecute and subpoena. Instead, our jejune RCMP boasts that it has “partnered with Craigslist.” And our spineless justice minister, Rob Nicholson, has written a letter pleading that Craigslist stop its lucrative ads because “they should listen to what we have to say.” Good luck with that. One imagines that the more aggressive American culture of activism, which did not balk at labelling Craigslist “the richest pimp in the world,” was fundamental in efforts to remove this particular endangerment to America’s teenagers.

Professor Perrin is the closest that Canada has to that sort of activist. His book on human trafficking is highly necessary and superbly researched, and is an unparalleled intellectual contribution to its field. But like the country itself, he has written a polite—often too polite—sort of indictment.

“The word that best describes Canada’s record in dealing with human trafficking,” writes Perrin, “is lethargic.” There is certainly truth in this assessment, but it is a half-truth. Far too often, the evidence that Perrin furnishes is less diagnostic of national lethargy than of a national blind spot, in which institutions contribute to the trafficking problem through malice or ignorance. Sloth, which is easily changeable, would actually be preferable to the current realities, which are a national disgrace.

Canada committed itself in international law to combat human trafficking when it signed the Palermo Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000, which, among other things, requires this country to legislate trafficking as a crime. Lethargy might explain why Parliament took until 2005 to criminalize human trafficking and until 2010 to impose mandatory minimum sentences for child trafficking. But it fails as an explanation for why Canada’s belated laws are shot through with loopholes.

For example, under Canada’s Criminal Code, but not under international law, a loophole makes it legal to exploit a person to provide services—including a child, for sex—as long as the person is not made to feel that his or her safety or another’s safety is threatened. ((Section 279.04(a) of the Criminal Code reads that “a person exploits another person if they … cause them to provide, or offer to provide, labour or a service by engaging in conduct that, in all the circumstances, could reasonably be expected to cause the other person to believe that their safety or the safety of a person known to them would be threatened if they failed to provide, or offer to provide, the labour or service.” A threat to safety is therefore essential or there is no exploitation, and no trafficking crime. )) Therefore the clever trafficker eschews the stick, and instead deploys psychological carrots to become the victim’s “boyfriend.” The “boyfriend” may be the alternative to an unhappy home situation, may be a generous giver of gifts or may shower affection (“love bombing,” in the lingo) on a girl lacking self-esteem. Often that is enough to get her to turn tricks. Once prostituted, if she has second thoughts, the clever trafficker may reassert control not by threatening her safety (illegal), but instead by threatening her reputation (legal), such as by spreading the word that she is a whore. Similar to relationships of spousal abuse, all this trauma does not necessarily drive the victims and tormentors apart; paradoxically, it can drive them closer.

Perrin documents many, many trafficking stories that unfolded in just this way. Yet Parliament must not mind, because when it toughened up the Criminal Code just a few months ago, it again left this loophole intact rather than follow international law. On the spectrum of ills, that is not lethargy. It is more like national blindness and cruelty, which are Canada’s real problem.

Nobody knows how many human trafficking cases occur or are brought to justice in Canada. Nobody in Ottawa bothers to count. When the UN recently asked Canada for these statistics, it went away empty-handed. Not even the RCMP has a count and, as the force balefully wrote in its report Human Trafficking in Canada earlier this year, “the extent of human trafficking and the number of victims in Canada is still virtually unknown.”

Into this statistical vacuum bravely steps Perrin, bearing incomplete, although unsurpassed, evidence of Canada’s trafficking malignancy and the justice system’s lacklustre performance. His evidence is often anecdotal, as in a chapter on the sex trafficking of aboriginal children. Other times, his evidence is more solidly jurisprudential. And almost none of it suggests that Canada is merely lethargic.

Let us begin by assessing the success stories, namely the cases where human traffickers are caught, prosecuted and sentenced to punishment. There are fewer success stories than there are provinces in Canada: Perrin counts only five successful prosecutions, which, on closer inspection, hardly shows the justice system operating at its high-water mark. Take Imani Nakpangi, who escaped with the lightest of sentences for trafficking girls on Craigslist. For Samantha, a 14-year-old, he served no prison time at all, because he came within the loophole of not using threats to safety. For Eve, whom he acquired as a child and “raised” to 18 years old, he was sentenced to three years less double time served in pre-trial custody—being less prison time than Eve spent in his thrall. Later, another trafficker, Jacques Leonard-St. Vil, availed of these legal precedents. He was sentenced to one day’s imprisonment after conviction.

With those as Canada’s success stories, total failure is but a short journey away. Perrin and the RCMP each report that traffickers are frequently linked to street gangs or international organized crime, so even absent meaningful numbers, it is inconceivable that trafficking is small-time crime. If that is wrong, then with earnings estimated at $280,000 annually from prostituting a single girl, it is equally inconceivable that the crime will remain small time for long. The justice system is completely outmatched, for as Perrin writes, “Canada does not have any Crown prosecutors dedicated to human trafficking cases, nor have prosecutors or judges received systematic training in the new area of human trafficking offences.”

The justice system is even feebler when it comes to the trafficking of foreigners, notably from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, who are lured to Canada with false promises of decent work and the sweet life. Predictably, human traffickers are less than punctilious about immigration laws. It is easier to control and exploit an undocumented victim when that person lives in constant fear of the authorities.

But what is truly surprising is how the authorities dumbly oblige the traffickers by being fearsome. Perrin recounts cases where police busted a trafficker and rescued the victims—only for Citizenship and Immigration Canada to deny the victims temporary residence in Canada, or for the Canada Border Services Agency to lock them up like criminals. Such a knuckleheaded lack of sympathy virtually assures that the traffickers will walk free, because the odds of getting a conviction are microscopically small after the star witnesses are deported or treated so callously that they will confide to nobody in uniform. An intelligent new formula of providing foreign trafficking victims with temporary residence permits, settlement services and income support—a path to normalcy, rather than bureaucratic revictimization—is supposed to solve this, but do not hold your breath waiting. Not all the provinces are on board, and neither CIC nor CBSA appears not to give a damn, since in the province where trafficking is most extensive (Ontario) they refuse to meet with non-governmental organizations that serve and advocate for trafficked immigrants.

There is an almost inexhaustible palimpsest of horrors in Perrin’s book—such as Passport Canada’s readiness to issue convicted child molesters unrestricted travel papers, good for a little offshore degustation—which lend themselves to a number of unflattering comparisons. Belgium, Italy, Sweden and the United States do much better, Perrin convincingly argues. By the end of the book, the evidence is overwhelming: whether in prosecution, protection or prevention of human trafficking, Canada is not just lethargic, but an infamously bad actor without a good excuse.

But why? It is on this question that, sadly, Perrin’s otherwise wonderful book stumbles.

In his final chapter, Perrin, as others before him, likens the quest to eradicate human trafficking to that of eradicating slavery; he invokes William Wilberforce and tries to summon a new incarnation of him for our times. Although a poor historical analogy—in the 18th and 19th centuries slavery was legal, and slaveholders were the cream of society—the comparison is nonetheless worth thinking about.

In the superb Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, journalist Adam Hochschild explains that one thing the British abolitionists had going for them was a flourishing, brazen, cheeky popular movement—or what today would be called a healthy NGO sector. The hypothesis that slavery was abolished through governmental channels, in the person of Wilberforce, is much too sparse to be truly accurate. Hochschild carries out a warm-hearted zoological exploration of abolition activists—the perpetually moving figureheads, the earnest Quakers, the wing nuts, the holier-than-thou bourgeoisie, the pitiable or insurrectionist ex-slaves—whose role is forgotten in the oversimplified Wilberforcian narrative of change. This rabble invented the tools still used by activists today to kneecap their opposition into contrition. They took petitions to another level and flooded Parliament with more outraged names than there were people allowed to vote at the time. They made the consumer boycott fashionable, so that ladies sipped astringent tea rather than that sweetened with slave-grown sugar. They enlisted musicians and artisans to spout brilliant one-liners (“Am I not a man and a brother?” read one reproving Wedgwood medallion). They made life awkward for major hypocrites, such as the Church of England, which not only owned slaves but had them branded with a red-hot iron that read “SOCIETY.”

What those activists never did was serenely look to government for change, or docilely tut-tut when it lagged. And this is where the analogy to slavery becomes unserviceable, because in Canada today, a deadening government hand that dispenses grants and licences assures that activism is mostly tut-tutting. Any Canadian researcher or NGO that would tweak the governmental nose as vigorously as American NGOs regularly do had better not require government supports, because those would disappear quickly. With activist professors and organizations substantially muted, although not silenced, Canadian governments can get away with behaving lethargically—or worse. Who else has the depth of knowledge and staying power to challenge them effectively?

This self-censorship, more than any single phenomenon, makes it possible for Canada to be such a pathetic laggard on human trafficking. I mean no disrespect to Perrin and like-minded activists—they have my undying admiration—but when confronted with successive federal governments that squandered a whole decade after the Palermo Protocol without bothering to legislate the laws that other advanced countries take for granted, and when faced with arrogant CIC and CBSA bureaucrats who will not sully their pristine air by meeting with NGOs, the gloves must come off. Perrin deserves thanks for making the cerebral case for an anti-trafficking cause in Canada. Now he and others must make a corporeal, pugilistic movement out of it, as the slavery abolitionists did centuries ago.

A review in the LRC is not the place to discuss activist strategy, but this movement needs more of it. The funding and tactics definitely should not be made in Canada, but should be brought in from foreign philanthropies, for whom Canada’s true colours on human trafficking are a dispassionate matter of evidence rather than what governments are comfortable hearing. On the whole those tactics should be a hell of a lot less polite, and should pick off the easy targets first (Craigslist boycott, anyone?). If that makes you nervous, ask yourself if what is being done to Our Little Pocahontas and so many others is polite at all—and ask yourself what kind of country would keep letting it happen.

Amir Attaran is a lawyer and scientist and Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy in the Faculties of Law and Medicine at the University of Ottawa.