OpEd: Nova Scotia Human Trafficking Rates: Alarm and hope

By Charlene Gagnon and Miia Suokonautio, YWCA Halifax

The 2021 Statistics Canada report on police-reported rates of Trafficking in Persons charges found the rate for Nova Scotia increased by more than 400% from 2018 to 2019 (from 1.0 incidents for every 100,000 to 5.3) and is more than three times the national average (1.4 in 2019).

An increase in reported crime rates is typically seen as a bad thing.  But what if we know that underreporting of a crime is pervasive? 

A reliance on crime rate reporting as an indicator of safe communities misses how systemic misogyny, racism, and trauma actually work.  Victims fear for their safety and often cite a process that is overwhelming and re-traumatizing.  Sexual violence, intimate partner violence, and slavery in particular are chronically underreported because victims must also serve as witnesses in an adversarial criminal justice system where their credibility is fair game.  For this reason, for example, it is difficult to prosecute the rape of a sex worker or the violence enacted on a woman who has herself been charged of child abuse.

While at first glance alarming, is the increase in police-reported rates of human trafficking in Nova Scotia actually an indication of improvements in our system as a whole?  In other words, are we maybe on the right track?

For context, since 2016, communities across Nova Scotia have been mobilizing to address human trafficking and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation including child pornography and the exchange of sex for basic needs including rent and transportation.  YWCA Halifax convenes the Trafficking and Exploitation Services System (TESS), currently made up of 184 individuals from 81 agencies across the province.  The YWCA is also co-chair with the Province of Nova Scotia of a provincial Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Youth Committee, with representation from multiple departments and community agencies.

Over the past five years, the YWCA has trained over 2,000 people to be detectors of sexual exploitation, to identify warning signs, to support disclosures, and to report to officials when appropriate or required.  We’ve deployed a provincial team of peer outreach workers to work alongside victims, survivors, and families, including when they are pressing charges or participating in investigations and trials.

In Nova Scotia, positions specific to human trafficking have been created within law enforcement and the justice system; we now have a dedicated provincial investigation team, a dedicated Crown prosecutor, and dedicated provincial victim services navigators. There has also been an investment in research which has led to the creation of specialized social services within child welfare and the community sector.  Wrap-around case management and a survivor peer network are currently in development.

In short, over the past five years, a foundation of support for victims of human trafficking in Nova Scotia has been laid and the rising rates of police-reported incidents lead us to cautiously hope that it is solid.

To add mortar to this same foundation, we were thrilled to learn that starting this fall, learning outcomes related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth will be delivered as part of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s Healthy Living 7 core program for grades 7 to 9 and compulsory for all students.  This gap in youth education and awareness was one of the first issues identified by TESS partners in 2017 and there have been many people working for such a change to take place.  We are looking forward to collaborating with the Department of Education on supporting the development of lesson materials and training for educators across our province.  Prevention through education remains key as youth are on average only 13 years old when first trafficked.

Lastly, it behooves us all to remember that police-reported human trafficking rates do not reflect the true prevalence of these crimes.  Rather, these numbers serve as a testament to the courage of victims who come forward and their trust in a system to support them as they seek remedy and exit. 

While still shocking, Nova Scotia’s numbers are evidence that we are no longer blind to the problem of human trafficking.  We see.  We believe. We support.