PC’s human trafficking statistic based on withdrawn reports

By Allison Smith and Alan S. Hale July 9, 2021

The Canadian Women’s Foundation says it disavowed a pair of reports used by the PC government to bolster its anti-human-trafficking policies more than three years ago.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones’ office has cited the reports, which were published in 2013 and 2014, as evidence for the statistic that “the average age of recruitment into sex trafficking is 13 years old.” The PC government has published that figure as a “quick fact” in at least nine press releases over the past year.

But Karen Campbell, the Canadian Women’s Foundation director of community initiatives and policy, says both of those reports were taken out of circulation and removed from their website in January 2018 (although they still exist online in PDF form). The organization no longer stands behind the data.

“In the seven to eight years since we published those reports there has been a lot of growth and understanding about who is vulnerable under anti-human trafficking laws,” Campbell told Queen’s Park Today in an interview.

“It’s concerning to see our statistics pop up in this way, and it’s concerning that this conception of human trafficking is so prevalent,” she said.

Perpetuating the stereotype of trafficking victims as preteen girls allows “law and order” governments to plow ahead with policing policies that harm sex workers and seep funds from community-based efforts that are more effective at helping vulnerable girls and women, she explained.

“They can point to the bad guys preying on them and it drives towards a specific type of solution,” she said. “What’s far more common is violence committed by men against women on a daily basis.”

Since taking office, the PCs have launched a $307-million anti-trafficking strategy. Recently, that included the controversial Bill 251, which requires hotels to register the names of clients and allows provincial inspectors to retain a swath of evidence from purported crime scenes.

Sex work advocacy groups decried the expanded policing powers this spring, saying the legislation would “further embolden police to surveil, interrogate, detain, and deport sex workers, making it more difficult for them to work safely.”

At the time, Jones evoked the narrative of young female victims to push back against the criticism. “To suggest that a 13-year-old who is participating and has been recruited into human trafficking is doing it of their own free will is frankly ludicrous,” she said at a news conference in May.

The province has also added anti-trafficking lessons to the elementary school curriculum. Earlier this week, it announced it would be mandatory for school boards to work with police to develop “protocols” to “recognize, identify, respond and prevent the sex trafficking of children and youth.”

However, the data around the prevalence of human trafficking is murky and the cause has been taken up by groups such as QAnon, adherents of which held a “Save the Children” protest outside Queen’s Park last August.

“The whole data landscape is really confusing and contaminated … there is no data you can point to,” Campbell said.

That was backed up by Casandra Diamond, the executive director of BridgeNorth, who appeared alongside Jones and Education Minister Stephen Lecce at a news conference this week.

“There are no actual stats [or] consistent numbers that questioners can rely on in the near future,” Diamond said in response to a question from Queen’s Park Today about the veracity of the average age-13 statistic.

Jones’ office maintains that there is still plenty of evidence “demonstrating the average age of recruitment is as low as 13 years old,” pointing to a handful of other anti-trafficking group reports and quotes advocates provided to media outlets.

But spokesperson Stephen Warner admits reliable data on human trafficking victims can be hard to come by.

“Because of the nature of the crime and the fact that many instances go unreported, it can be challenging for precise statistics to be developed,” he told Queen’s Park Today, adding that the PC government will “do all in our power to put a stop to this heinous crime in Ontario.”

For Campbell, the flawed data, which is also circulated by U.S. organizations and was debunked by the Washington Post in 2015, has “staying power” because it gives a particular image of who a trafficking victim is, even if that’s not the reality.

“It’s difficult across the political spectrum to challenge it because no one wants to seem pro-trafficking,” she said. “So the nuance is lost.”