Reported by Greg Bowman

A seven-year study on human trafficking in northern Ontario shows the need to decriminalize sex work among other systemic changes.

Rosemary Nagy, an associate professor at North Bay’s Nipissing University and co-lead of the Northeastern Ontario Research Alliance on Human Trafficking (NORAHT), says one of the most significant findings from her team’s research was the impact anti-human trafficking campaigns have on victims.

“The biggest problem is that it depicts (sexually) trafficked women as passive victims awaiting rescue. It overlooks the really complicated ways in which people come to be trafficked. It overlooks the ways in which women navigate these situations with resiliency and resistance,” Nagy explains.

The study also found that the anti-human trafficking campaigns also affect those involved in sex work, which Nagy believes should no longer be criminalized.

“Our research findings show that we need to clearly distinguish between sex work and trafficking and that we need to decriminalize sex work,” Nagy said.

Sex work is defined as the “willing engagement of commercial sex”, while sex trafficking involves force or coercion, according to the Human Trafficking Search.

“When you drive the (sex work) industry further underground, you’re also making it easier for people to engage in trafficking and other kinds of violence,” Nagy explained.

Another focus of the study revealed the need to “decolonize actions” in regards to helping Indigenous victims of human trafficking.

“It’s designed for non-Indigenous or settler Canadians who are interested in learning what it means to decolonize our actions when providing service who have experienced abuse, violence or exploitation in the sex industry,” Nagy noted.

In 2013, Nagy was approached by Brenda Quenneville, who was the executive director of the Amelia Rising Sexual Assault Center of Nipissing at the time.

Quenneville came to Nagy because she had heard of a reported increase in human trafficking in the area, but the crisis centre did not know how to handle victims due to a lack of information.

From there, Quenneville and Nagy sought funding for a long-term study into human trafficking in northern Ontario, partnering with the AIDS Committee of North Bay and Area and Anishinabek Nation.

Nipissing University, Victim Services of Nipissing District, and Centered Fire Counselling and Consulting were also involved in the research project as it gained more traction in 2015.

Nagy and her team travelled to communities around northern Ontario, speaking with service agencies that took in victims of sex trafficking.

Through conversations with the service agencies and people with lived experiences with human trafficking, Nagy and NORAHT published policy briefs based on their findings, with the hopes of better informing the higher levels of government responsible for supplying funding.

“Because there’s been such an overwhelming focus in the media and in Hollywood and in provincial funding on human trafficking, it ends up creating a sort of hierarchy of victimhood. Agencies might start to identify situations as human trafficking in order to access funds that are available,” Nagy said. “It takes away from other areas of funding for gender-based violence.”

After years of research, Nagy says she is glad to have worked with many like-minded people.

“It’s been a really long journey. It’s been an incredible learning journey. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing women on the research team and also gotten to know some women who have been generous enough to share their experience and knowledge with us,” she said.

For the full study, click here.