Human trafficking research reveals Canada's role in violence against Aboriginal women

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Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

Canada's response to the safety concerns of Indigenous women and girls has garnered significant attention in recent months. Alongside high-profile debates about Canadian sex work laws and the experiences of Aboriginal women and girls in sex industries, significant attention has focused on Canada's response, or lack of response, to the nearly 1,200 murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls.

Similarly, recent discussions of human trafficking have foregrounded the vulnerability of Indigenous girls and women. In 2012, both an RCMP report and the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking specifically label Aboriginal women and girls as having heightened risk of becoming victims of human trafficking.

In this context, Public Safety Canada issued a call in August 2013 for proposals to study the extent and situations in which Aboriginal family members are involved in trafficking their relatives.

In response to the call, some Indigenous communities voiced concern over the broad recasting of Indigenous women's involvement in the sex trade as "sex trafficking." Many also raised concern about the victim-blaming approach of the research. Of particular concern was the sheer absence of any reference to the historical context of colonization and ongoing tensions in settler-Indigenous relations.

What, for instance, might we garner if the question was reversed: Has the Canadian government participated in the trafficking of Indigenous persons?

Forcible removal from traditional lands, government-imposed reserves, forced relocation, compulsory removal of children to attend residential schools. Force and coercion are integral to the colonizing process, yet the question of Public Safety Canada remained: how are Aboriginal families trafficking their children? 

The report, completed in May 2014, but only released on Thursday after The Canadian Press obtained it through the Access to Information Act, paints a more nuanced, albeit limited, picture of the experiences of human trafficking in relation to Indigenous women and girls.

Although media reports have largely focused on the involvement of family members and peers as "traffickers," we would like here to emphasize key elements of the research findings which instead focus on the state's role in the continuum of violence experienced by Indigenous girls and women.

In particular, the report highlights that most of the participants, with the notable exception of law enforcement, suggest the term "human trafficking" is inadequate to encompass the history of colonization and the normalization of violent victimization experienced by Aboriginal girls and women.

Colonial stereotypes of Indigenous women promoted images of sexual availability that perpetuated and normalized such violence. Yet, similar to Stephen Harper's response to murdered and missing Indigenous women, a central challenge of focusing on human trafficking is that we are encouraged to "view it as a crime," rather than a broader, complex historical and sociological phenomenon.

Underscoring the limitations of a crime-centred approach, the report highlights the generalized and specific mistrust of the police by many Indigenous women and girls.

A common experience identified in the report, and known to most Indigenous women in the country, is to have had individual police officers make inappropriate or racist comments. As the report highlights, Indigenous women and girls involved in sex work, in particular, report experiencing derogatory or degrading interactions with police and the criminal justice system. When quoting specific police responses, the language in the report evokes cultural attitudes that permit and excuse physical, sexual and verbal violence against Indigenous women.

Yet, in the absence of addressing such systemic inequalities, the government continues to propose strategies that enhance state control over Indigenous women's bodies -- through counter-trafficking initiatives, sex work laws and targeting girls "at risk" of going missing or being murdered through community safety plans.

Similar to examining how Indigenous communities are trafficking their children, such initiatives perpetuate a focus on Indigenous people as the problem, while ignoring systemic violence and root causes.

As researchers working in diverse community contexts on responses to human trafficking in Canada, we have found that alongside deep-rooted mistrust in the criminal justice system, some Indigenous women working in anti-trafficking related employment fear that trafficking laws will eventually be used to criminalize individuals in their communities.

Further, some Indigenous sex workers have resisted their sex trade involvement being unilaterally characterized as trafficking or victimization, as this approach denies their choice or agency and instead portrays them as victims of crime in need of police intervention.

In contexts of inter-generational involvement in the sex trade, criminalizing mothers and grandmothers does little to address the historically constructed cycles of poverty, abuse and violence where, as the report highlights, "there is always a connection to residential schools in the past."

Rather, such an approach perpetuates ongoing cycles of state apprehension from residential schools, to foster and group homes, and to prisons.

While the initial question advanced by Public Safety about how Aboriginal families are trafficking their children emphasizes and typifies such fears of criminalization, the report itself highlights that experiences of exploitation faced by Indigenous women cast a wide-ranging net that are not limited to, but include, the deplorable living and working conditions of individuals who have been trafficked. Placed in context, such victimization requires informed responses that address broader issues of colonization, the normalization of violence towards Indigenous women and girls, poverty and lack of safe, affordable housing.

As a starting point, rather than spying on academic forums and protest movements, the government would be advised to listen to the range of Indigenous people mobilizing in response to both state and interpersonal violence and to recognize the harms that continue to come from state coercion and forced movement of Indigenous people -- harms that are all too close to elements of human trafficking.

Dr. Julie Kaye is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of Community Engaged Research at The King's University. Specializing in the areas of sociology of development, inequality, criminology, and policy, her research examines human trafficking and anti-trafficking responses in Canada. [email protected] @mysoci

Dr. Sarah Hunt is a member of the Kwagiulth band of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation. She is an independent writer, researcher and advocate who has worked for more than 15 years on Indigenous anti-violence and justice initiatives. @thesarahhunt

Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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