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Irwin Cotler, MP

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Debate on Bill C-452: Human Trafficking

Posted on November 26, 2013

Mr. Speaker, I rise to address Bill C-452, as have my predecessors this evening, which seeks to combat human trafficking and exploitation.

As I have said previously in debate on the bill, the true measure of a society’s commitment to equality and human dignity is the protection it affords its most vulnerable members, and the victims of human trafficking are among the most vulnerable of all. It is therefore to the credit of this House that efforts to deal with this compelling concern have been initiated and supported by hon. members on all sides.

I was proud to introduce Canada’s original human trafficking legislation, as minister of justice, in 2005, and I am pleased to acknowledge the subsequent and ongoing special contributions of the member for Kildonan—St. Paul, who spoke this evening.

Of course, I would like to thank the member for Ahuntsic for introducing the bill that we are looking at today. I intend to support it.

The bill before us seeks to bolster efforts to combat human trafficking and exploitation in three important ways.

First, by adding these offences of trafficking to those for which the forfeiture of the proceeds of crime applies, the bill seeks to ensure thereby that traffickers do not profit from their actions.

At committee, several witnesses testified that the average annual profit from trafficking one woman is $280,000. Moreover, according to the 2012 U.S. State Department report, the international trade in human beings generates approximately $32 billion each year. It is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.

Éliane Legault-Roy, from the Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle, testified that this industry “responds solely to profit and customer demand”.

I completely agree that the government must be able to seize the proceeds amassed by those who treat human beings as goods to be sold.

Second, the bill aims to facilitate the prosecution of human trafficking offences by reversing the onus of proof such that an individual habitually in the company of a person who is exploited would be presumed complicit in the exploitation, absent evidence to the contrary.

The justice committee heard from several witnesses that victims in such cases are reluctant to testify in court due to fear of facing their abusers and to the trauma of having to talk openly about their ordeal. It is therefore important to minimize the demands placed on victims in human trafficking trials to prevent their re-victimization, as this provision seeks to do.

At the same time, it is generally a fundamental principle of our justice system that the burden is on the state to prove that the accused is guilty, rather than requiring the accused to prove his or her innocence. The member for Ahuntsic has correctly noted that reversals of the burden of proof do exist in our Criminal Code, but they are rare, and for good reason. Accordingly, reverse onus provisions must be implemented with the utmost caution so as to minimize the risk of wrongful conviction.

As such, the Liberal member on the justice committee proposed amendments that would have specified that the reverse onus in Bill C-452 would apply only to those who live off the avails of exploitation and are over the age of 18. This change would have preserved the bill’s intent of lessening the burden on victims at trial while reducing the chances that this reverse onus provision might, in exceptional circumstances, entrap an innocent person. I regret that these amendments were unsuccessful, although, as I say, I will support the bill nonetheless.

Finally, Bill C-452 aims to deter the expansion of human trafficking operations by requiring offenders to serve their sentences consecutively, such that each additional victim represents an additional penalty to the offender. Many witnesses at the justice committee expressed frustration that concurrent sentences are currently the norm in human trafficking cases. For example, Robert Hooper, of Walk With me Canada Victims Services, told the committee:

…when you are able to garner upwards of   $200,000 to $300,000 per trafficked victim in one year, and the only real   risk in sentencing is a concurrent sentence for each additional victim, the   trafficker is almost compelled to expand his business empire with little risk   of significant ramifications to him in the criminal justice system here in   Canada.

I share the goal of making consecutive sentences the norm for human trafficking convictions. At the same time, I am reluctant to remove discretion from judges, as the bill does, by making consecutive sentences mandatory in all such cases. It is certainly possible to make consecutive sentences the norm while still allowing judges to order concurrent sentences in exceptional cases, providing they give reasons for departing from the usual practice.

This is precisely what a Liberal amendment proposed at committee would have done, and I regret that it, too, was unsuccessful. As with the amendment to which I earlier referred, this one would have preserved the bill’s raison d’être while ensuring that our justice system remains well equipped to deal with unusual and unforseeable circumstances. Still, once again, I share the objectives of this legislation and believe that its effects would be generally positive, and I will, as I mentioned, vote in favour of it.

I will now turn to a matter of process that arose at committee and that warrants our attention.

The justice committee began clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-452 on May 6. At that meeting, the bill’s sponsor, the member for Ahuntsic, was present and permitted to speak by the chair. This was both appropriate and helpful for committee members and for all parliamentarians, who benefited from hearing the perspective of the member who proposed the legislation.

However, at the end of the meeting the Conservative members chastised the chair for having let the member for Ahuntsic participate. When clause-by-clause study resumed on May 8, at which time additional amendments were considered and a clause that had previously carried was reviewed and deleted, Conservative committee members refused to allow the member for Ahuntsic to take part in debate on her own bill.

The member for York West moved to let her speak. The government still rejected the motion. In the words of the committee chair, “…for a private member’s bill I think every member has the right to come and talk to the bill and the amendments to it. … I think that’s only fair….”

I agree fully, and I find it deeply regrettable that Conservative members denied the member for Ahuntsic the opportunity to address significant changes proposed to her own legislation.

As we know, in most cases the sponsor of a private member’s bill can substitute for a colleague from the same party and so participate in committee discussion. However, when the bill is that of an independent member, as happened in this case, that option is not available to them. It is therefore, as the chair said, only fair to invite them as an additional and important voice. The Conservatives’ refusal to do so was prejudicial to the principle of open and informed debate, essential to our legislative process. Moreover, the silencing of the member for Ahuntsic constituted a missed opportunity to act in a collegial manner on important legislation that enjoys all-party support.

I would hope that hon. members would take pains to act collegially even when we disagree. How much more so should we seize opportunities such as this to join together in mutual respect and common cause?

In that same spirit, I would like to thank the member for Ahuntsic for introducing this bill.

I thank the member for Kildonan—St. Paul, who made yet another important intervention this evening, and others in the House for their efforts on this issue. I thank the many Canadians, including the witnesses who testified at committee, for their daily efforts to combat human trafficking and to help the survivors of exploitation rebuild their lives.

I will close by importantly recognizing the victims, both those bravely attempting to recover from the horrors of past ordeals and the millions in Canada and around the world who, as we speak, are exploited and enslaved. I look forward to continuing with members of all parties in the fight for their freedom.

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