Advocates urge Ontario government to fill potential gap in new human trafficking bill

The Ontario government’s new Combating Human Trafficking Act is a welcome start to tackling a widespread issue, but there may be a significant gap that needs to be addressed, the Opposition says. 

Bill 251 was introduced in the provincial legislature on Feb. 22 — National Human Trafficking Awareness Day — by Ontario Attorney General Sylvia Jones. 

“We are making bold leaps to raise awareness among the public, protect victims, support survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable,” Jones said.  

More human trafficking is reported to police in Ontario than in any other part of the country, she said. 

One of the bill’s cornerstones for rescuing victims recognizes the fact that they are often taken to hotels and motels to be sexually exploited. The first section of the proposed legislation requires hotels to maintain a registry of every guest who checks in — including their name and address. It also allows police officers and First Nations constables to more quickly gain access to a hotel’s registry if “there are reasonable grounds to believe information recorded in the register will assist in locating or identifying a person who is currently a victim of human trafficking or is at imminent risk of being trafficked.”

But the bill doesn’t specify whether people operating other types of lodging, including short-term rentals such as Airbnb, will be subject to the same requirements, said Chris Glover, an NDP opposition MPP.

“There is a real need to not just go after hotels … in terms of you know, regulating and asking them to participate,” Glover said. “There’s also a real need to get Airbnb involved and other short-term rental agencies to stop human trafficking in their sites as well.” 

In addition to hotels, the bill says, “businesses in a prescribed class are also required to keep these registers.” CBC News asked the Ontario government to clarify whether or not that would include Airbnb, but it was unable to provide a response by deadline. 

The bill also includes a provision for the attorney general or other government ministers to make additional regulations, including identifying other businesses to be included, after the the act becomes law. But Glover and other advocates say it’s important to recognize that human trafficking occurs in many different types of short-term accommodations by specifying that in the legislation itself.  

“If it’s not clear on its face when you read the act who is a ‘prescribed class’ or what lodging services apply, then it needs to be right in legislation so that everyone knows who it applies to,” said Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director at Aboriginal Legal Services.

Indigenous women and girls are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking in Canada.  

“One of the things we heard over and over again in the national inquiry [on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls] was the role of hotels or this type of temporary residence or living situations that sees Indigenous women put through sexual exploitation and trafficking at a huge rate,” she said. 

Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director for Aboriginal Legal Services, says human trafficking and sexual exploitation happens in every form of lodging from five-star hotels to motels to short-term rentals, including Airbnb. (CBC)

Most people don’t realize how often human trafficking happens, often “in plain sight,” Big Canoe said.

People often picture rundown, roadside motels when they think of trafficking, she said. It definitely happens there, but traffickers also exploit their victims in all sorts of lodging, from large five-star hotels to Airbnb rentals. 

“It’s way more insidious than most people are aware. It’s almost like society has a willful blindness,”  Big Canoe said. “It’s like we see it and we look away, or we might suspect it but we don’t act.”

In addition to keeping a registry of guests, hospitality workers should be trained to look for signs of trafficking, she said. For example, if a group of people check in and only one of them is a girl or woman, that can be a potential signal. 

Human traffickers often take their victims’ credit cards — or steal their names to apply for new credit cards — and use them to book rooms, said Richard Dunwoody, executive director of Project Recover, a not-for-profit organization that helps survivors to regain their financial footing. 

Among more than 120 survivors the organization helped last year, Dunwoody said, credit card receipts showed their traffickers used hotels and services like Airbnb about equally. 

Both Glover and Big Canoe say they hope the bill will be amended as it moves through second and third readings before receiving royal assent and becoming law. 

Who to call if you believe human trafficking is happening

Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-833-900-1010

Click here to see the hotline’s website or to use the chat function.