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Opinion: What can B.C. businesses do about human trafficking?

A community’s identity is defined in no small measure by the ambitions of its business leadership in using its power to tackle fundamental social challenges.
The Human Trafficking Prevention Network of British Columbia was launched in February 2024

A community’s identity is defined in no small measure by the ambitions of its business leadership in using its power to tackle fundamental social challenges.

But success depends not only on the underlying passion but the sustained attention and the credibility of personal heft in the effort to confront the discomfort of unpacking and dismantling the challenges. Too frequently the focus dissipates; there are so many seeming priorities.

It will be worth watching the progress, then, of how two formidable leaders have joined forces to assemble an authoritative alliance and chart a course of action on an issue that business rarely thinks about but knows it can do much about: human trafficking.

Susannah Pierce and Janet Austin are two of the most resourceful, esteemed leaders we have in British Columbia. Pierce, president and country chair of Shell Canada, will chair the newly formed Human Trafficking Network of British Columbia. Austin, our lieutenant governor, will be the honorary patron.

In a matter of six months they’ve constructed a consortium of many of the most distinguished leaders and organizations: the principal business groups at the Business Council of British Columbia and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, the Port of Vancouver, YVR Airport, TransLink, the BC Native Women’s Association, KPMG, the Royal Bank, TELUS Health, among them. Leaders like Tamara Vrooman at YVR and Juggy Sihota at TELUS are already implementing programs or publicly broadening the coalition.

The Criminal Code defines human trafficking as “recruiting, transporting, transferring, receiving, holding, concealing or harbouring a person, or exercising control directly on or influence over the movements of a person, to exploit them or to assist in facilitating their exploitation.” This can be for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labour, and other forms of coercion.

A statement of support for the network by its diverse organizations says the issue “demands our collective attention and action.” It speaks of the value of collaboration “crucial to addressing the complexities of this crime,” praises the efforts to date, and commits to “support and complement these efforts, facilitating greater coordination, amplification, and funding.”

The statistics on human trafficking can never tell the true story, only the extent of identified victims and survivors. Between 2019 and 2022 in Canada, there were 2,170 such cases. Of the more than 3,100 detected victims of police-reported trafficking from 2012 to 2022, 94 per cent were women and girls—nearly seven in 10 were under the age of 25. One in three cases involved an “intimate partner.” In B.C. in 2022, only three of the 29 human trafficking cases resulted in charges.

While there have been sensational cases of women being smuggled into Canada, the Joy Smith Foundation, a leading authority on human trafficking, found in its study that 90 per cent of Canadian victims were Canadian-born.

Indeed, as Austin pointed out in a speech to the annual BCBC Chair’s Dinner last week, “the key focus for our network is the sexual exploitation—not exclusively, but primarily—of women and teenage girls, children really, large numbers of whom are Indigenous.”

A key member of the new network is Chastity Davis-Alphonse, its working group chair (and the editor of BIV's Indigenous business magazine), who notes the “reality underscores the urgency of this widespread challenge and the necessity of including Indigenous voices and perspectives in our efforts.” 

What business does business have in an issue like human trafficking? I suspect it will attack the challenge in ways governments often can’t, particularly through detection training for employees, raising awareness in communities and among companies at a more granular level than any government program could, and public communication. The “funding” reference in the statement of support won’t hurt, either.

In much the same way business prompted more serious public attention on child care and on diversity and equity issues, the opportunity exists here for the same collaboration to apply effort to reduce harm.

The lieutenant governor told me what many others know—that Pierce is a “force of nature” who gets results. She credited her in the dinner speech. “Susannah has put the issue of human trafficking on my radar, and we are determined to put it on the radar of all British Columbians.”

Kirk LaPointe is a West Vancouver columnist with decades of experience in Canadian media.