CNEE Response to the Pastoral Letter on Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in Canada

The following is our response to For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free: Pastoral Letter on Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in Canada.

We appreciate the efforts of the CCCB to speak out on this important issue. Collaborative Network to End Exploitation (CNEE) emerged from the desire of Catholic religious communities to respond to this crime.

In the spring of 2021, CNEE held a six-part webinar series called Do No Harm: A Fresh Perspective on Anti-Human Trafficking Work. The purpose of the series was to highlight the ways that anti-human trafficking efforts may end up causing harm to vulnerable and marginalized groups. The videos can be watched here. We encourage all to listen to these voices to help inform our anti-human trafficking work moving forward.

In light of what we learned from the experts and partners in our Do No Harm series, we feel compelled to express concerns with the focus and approach of the recent pastoral letter For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free: Pastoral Letter on Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation in Canada.

The letter opens by admitting that:

“although there are various types of human trafficking, this pastoral message focuses on the trafficking of human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation (prostitution).” (5)

This approach is problematic for two important reasons.

First, it ignores the very real existence of labour exploitation across Canada. Migrant workers in industries including agriculture, service, food and beverage, and construction are currently being trafficked in this country. Their numbers are severely underreported and underestimated because they are less likely to come into contact with law enforcement and less likely to be recognized as victims or survivors of exploitation. Their grievances get classified merely as labour issues, and they often lose their immigration status and are deported or go underground. Immigration and labour laws and regulations make migrant workers targets of exploitation. Catholics should be outraged and mobilized to change those policies and support exploited workers. To leave labour trafficking out of this pastoral letter is a grave oversight.

Second, this letter equates sexual exploitation to sex work (prostitution).

People work in the sex industry for a variety of reasons that fall on a spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion. Many people in the sex industry are not trafficked. To operate on the assumption that all sex workers are trafficked perpetuates patriarchal notions of women’s sexuality that categorize women as victims or criminals. This dichotomy results in greater fear and violence for those in the sex industry. One study found that migrant sex workers in Toronto identified law enforcement, not clients, as the major source of the violence they have faced.

From a human rights perspective, it is important we never use one person’s perspective or one set of experiences to negate or dismiss the other. To deny someone their own experiences is in itself a form of violence. The principle of do no harm reminds us to honour a range of perspectives and experiences. To advocate for laws that penalize and criminalize those in the sex industry perpetuates the cycles of violence and disenfranchisement that make people in that industry easy targets for exploitation.

Anti-human trafficking efforts should not come at the expense of already marginalized and oppressed groups. The Catholic teaching of the dignity of the person and the dignity of work means Catholics must find ways to fight exploitation that do not create greater danger for those on whose behalf we claim to be fighting. Those of us working in this field have a duty to first of all do no harm.

We cannot and should not be putting people at risk. We need to collaborate with non-traditional partners who can inform our work.