This event on May 17, 2017 at St. Michael’s College in Toronto was entitled A New Dialogue on Human Trafficking: Exploring the Spectrum of Exploitation.

The prevalent human trafficking discourse is currently shaped by a few stories and groups; it overlooks many forms and facets of trafficking, such as labour trafficking and exploitation, and it fails to address the root causes of the problem.

In addition, the current narrative does not capture the complex experiences and needs of those who are exploited but do not fit the very limiting legal definition of human trafficking. This lopsided narrative has a negative impact on many people and groups who are already marginalized.

Ann McGowan (Mary Ward Centre) and Sister Thérèse Meunier (Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto) were facilitators.

Organizers hoped to engage in a respectful dialogue that will inform actions and guide our policy makers to take action to address in a meaningful way all experiences and situations where human beings are exploited and abused. Although not exhaustive, the day helped to shift people’s approach to this work.

Below is a summary of the symposium’s main areas of discussion.

The Current Anti-Trafficking Approach: Problems & Challenges

Law and Order Approach

The current legal and governmental approach to countering trafficking focuses on rescuing victims and putting criminals behind bars.

This approach has had little success in lessening incidences of trafficking. It ignores root causes and doesn’t reduce trafficking. In some instances, laws that are supposed to prevent trafficking have actually increased it.

Historic Racism and Oppression

Today’s anti-human trafficking movement has its roots in the late 19th century anti-White slavery movement that fought the procurement of women and girls for forced sex work.

Anti-trafficking work exists within a framework that places ultimate value on white women’s sexual purity.

Confusion of Terms

  • Sex work ≠ Sex trafficking: People may engage in sex work due to choice, circumstance, or coercion. Not all sex workers are trafficked.
  • Arranged marriage ≠ Forced marriage: In an arranged marriage, both parties agree to the match. In a forced marriage, there is no choice.
  • Legal definition of human trafficking: The legal definition of trafficking is very narrow and does not extend to many types of exploitation that take place.

Some Barriers to Reporting Instances of Trafficking


There is no protection for migrant workers who report exploitation. They face detention and deportation.


The Temporary Foreign Worker Program ties migrant workers to one employer. If they complain about that employer, even in the event of exploitation, it is near-impossible for them to find another job.


If a complaint is made about an employer, all those working for that employer could lose their work permits and face deportation.

Seen as the Other

Migrant workers are viewed as outsiders – Canadians think they have no obligations to them.


Many migrant workers come from places where corruption is rampant and have an innate distrust of police.

Do No Harm

This should be the starting point of everyone who addresses trafficking. Often, anti-trafficking actions have had unintended consequences. One should consider these consequences and ensure that their actions do not cause further harm. 

For example, putting more restrictions on migrant work in Canada under the pretense of fighting trafficking has led to restrictions that put workers at greater risk.

Recommendations to End Exploitation

Reduce Difficulties

  • Make it easier for migrants to work in Canada.
  • Respond to the whole spectrum of exploitation, not just those who fit the narrow legal definition
  • Work for a new legal definition of trafficking that includes this spectrum.
  • Review anti-trafficking funding, moving the focus from prosecution to root causes.

Reach Out

  • Focus less on control, more on choice and change the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to allow greater freedoms for workers.
  • Operate with a client-centred framework.
  • Meet exploited people where they are without judgement and without a saviour complex.

Learn More

  • Provide culturally appropriate support for trafficked people (like allowing an Indigenous woman who was trafficked to smudge and use medicines).
  • Get more data. Right now, the only data is from law enforcement which is just a fraction of cases and is biased towards sexual exploitation cases.

Develop Training

  • Try new approaches and make recommendations to the federal government based on their successes and failures.
  • Arrange standardized training and assessment for all law enforcement officials.
  • Licence overseas recruits to monitor for exploitation.
  • See trafficking as part of the continuum of economic disempowerment.