Bill C-268, Human Trafficking and Slavery in Canada Past and Present

By Karlee Sapoznik

DOJ Human TraffickingAs a former British colony, Canada abolished the slave trade over 200 years ago. However, slavery was certainly not eradicated with the legal abolition of the slave trade. Canadians still buy and sell human beings. In fact, Canada is currently a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour. According to the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report on Canada:

“Canadian women and girls, many of whom are Aboriginal, are trafficked internally for commercial sexual exploitation. Foreign women and children, primarily from Asia and Eastern Europe, are trafficked to Canada for commercial sexual exploitation, but victims from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean also have been identified. Many trafficking victims are from Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, South Korea, the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine. Asian victims tend to be trafficked more frequently to Vancouver and Western Canada, while Eastern European and Latin American victims are trafficked to Toronto, Montreal, and Eastern Canada. NGOs report that Canada is a destination country for foreign victims trafficked for labour exploitation; some labour victims enter Canada legally but then are subjected to forced labour in agriculture, sweatshops, or as domestic servants. A significant number of victims, particularly South Korean females, go through Canada en route to the United States. Canada also is a source country for child sex tourists, who travel abroad to engage in sex acts with minors.”

human chain-2[1]In spite of this, Canadian slavery has long been a neglected area of historical study. In his Histoire du Canada (1846), François Garneau promulgated the myth that slavery never existed in New France. He congratulated King Louis XIV and the French colonial clergy for having saved French Canada from this “grand and terrible plague.

Following suit, others maintained that there had been no slavery in New France and Canada, despite the historical evidence. We even have a Canadian Heritage Minute that celebrates Canadian involvement in helping fugitive American slaves escape to Canada through the Underground Railroad, overlooking our own dark legacies when it comes to slavery.

Marcel Trudel’s 1960 study of Aboriginal and African slavery in early Canada was the first effort to document the institution of slavery in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New France, a bold proposition in the 1960s when historians often contrasted “slaveless” Canada with its “corrupt” American counterparts. He established the demographic and geographic distribution of 4,000 known slaves, as well as the identity and social profile of their masters.

Whereas earlier works, marked by a tradition of denial towards any Canadian involvement in the slave trade, focused on New France and British political elites, depicting black slavery as a subsidiary issue within white Canadian life and largely taking Aboriginal slavery for granted as an inevitable consequence of colonization, more recent work on slavery in Canada confirms the existence of slavery, and illuminates the dynamic interactions among the Black, the Aboriginal, and the white Canadian in their shared experience of slavery.

Additionally, scholars have sought to dispel the notion that Canada experienced a more benign form of slavery than their plantation society counterparts in the United States and the West Indies. Overall, it is clear that a host of subjects remain insufficiently explored, especially the Aboriginal experience of slavery, and slavery and anti-slavery in Canada since legal abolition, especially in the form of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is one of a number of forms of modern slavery thriving in Canada and abroad. Others include bonded labour, forced labour, hereditary slavery, sex trafficking, servile forced marriage, child labour, and forced prostitution.

Although slavery is now illegal around the world, it is still widely practiced. Experts place the number of living modern slaves at 27 million, twice as many as the number of Africans enslaved during the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, and the equivalent to the entire population of Canada in the early 1990s.

Human trafficking constitutes a relatively small percentage of modern slavery overall, but is the second-largest and fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. It generates $32 billion in profits annually. Traffickers can make thousands of dollars a day.

While most countries have minimum legal sentences for those caught trafficking miners, there is currently no minimum sentence in Canada. In fact, drug traffickers currently serve more jail time than human traffickers do when caught in Canada. Bill C-268 introduced by MP Joy Smith seeks to change this by calling for a minimum five year sentence.

Like anti-slavery advocates in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, modern Canadian abolitionists have met with politicians and sent petitions and letters to their political representatives and senators since Bill-C268 was introduced in January of 2009. It is expected that Bill C-268 will be reviewed by the Senate Committee mid-May and be reported back to the Senate by the beginning of June. Following this, Bill C-268 will only have its Third Reading to complete before becoming law. (To view an extensive timeline of Bill C-268, see

Events to promote awareness, understanding and activism against human trafficking are occurring across Canada. On May 8th, 2010, one day before Mother’s Day, Canadians gathered at the Manitoba Legislature to participate in a Walk to Stop Human Trafficking.

A number of women and girls have gone missing over the past few decades in Canada. In Manitoba most of them were from First Nation reserves. Today we know that a large majority of these victims were victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. In Joy Smith’s words, “a minimum sentence is only part of the solution,” but will hopefully be the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to tackling this form of modern slavery thriving in our own backyards.


For more information on human trafficking in Canada, click on the “article” heading at the website for Canada Fights Human Trafficking:

For information on what predicts human trafficking, see the following report by Kevin Bales, President of Free the Slaves (Washington DC), and Professor of Sociology,

Roehampton University, London:

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12 thoughts on “Bill C-268, Human Trafficking and Slavery in Canada Past and Present

  1. Jim Clifford

    Great post Karlee. Thanks for providing some historical context for this important issue. I was, however, uncomfortable with the focus on a minimum sentence as first step to solving this issue. Our government has been working to expand minimum sentences for all kinds of crimes and I don’t know if this is the real solution to any criminal issues. I know this is a private members bill from an individual MP trying to get human trafficking on to the national agenda, so maybe the simple approach is justified? I found a quote from Libby Davis defending her choice to vote against the third reading of the bill:
    “I voted in favour of Bill C-268 at second reading, hopeful that it might address the glaring lack of resources for law enforcement, the abysmal conviction rate for traffickers in this country, and include support for victims of trafficking–the real obstacles to combating trafficking in Canada. In the end, the bill focused solely on mandatory minimums sentences as a deterrent for trafficking, an approach even Mr. Hasiuk recognizes as unproven and unrelated to the real problems of trafficking.”

    Do you share her concerns?

    Read more:

  2. Lisa

    Great post, Karlee. This is a really wonderful illustration of why “history matters.”

    I remember reading a news story (sometime in the last year) about a man who had enslaved a group of Indian men in the Southern United States. My reading of the story was that it was a pretty clear cut case of slavery: the factory owner lured the men with promises of bringing their families to the U.S., high paying jobs, etc…then upon arrival in the U.S., he took their passports, basically starved the men, forced them to work, and locked them up when they were not working. I wish I could remember where I read the story. Anyway, the story went that one of the men managed to visit a local church and the pastor believed his story and helped the men escape, helped them secure legal counsel, found them shelter, and they are currently filing a lawsuit against the factory owner. The thing that struck me was the insistence by the factory owner that there was nothing wrong with what he had done. He was adamant that he was offering the men a “better life” and that they were showing immense ingratitude by bringing charges against him.

    This is totally idealistic (and possibly a bit “I’m an historian and I think history is important” kinda arrogant), but it strikes me that lessons from the history of slavery and exploitation (and basically anything that teaches people that the world is a very complicated place and no one person’s needs can justify the exploitation of others) might have had some value in that factory owner’s decision making process, re: hiring/recruiting men from India and thinking it was AOK to imprison them and force them to labour for him.

    I’m also glad you linked to the Underground Railroad Historica minute. My students this year had to write critique’s of a Historica Minute and many of them chose this one. It was a really great assignment (that I did not think of, in case peeps think I’m being all, rah, rah, I rule) because it forced students to think about the way that we remember our past as Canadians, the way the State wants us to remember our past, how the present informs our understanding of the past (we are multicultural!), the usefulness of a one minute clip to communicate history to the public, etc… You are absolutely right the minute ignores the Canadian legacy of slavery. It also ignores the significant racism directed towards African Americans (escaped slaves and free Canadian blacks) during this same time in our history.

  3. Karlee

    Hi Jim,

    You raise a very important concern. While in Ottawa for the Global Advocacy Days conference on March 24th and 25th, I met parents with missing daughters, leading experts on the issue of human trafficking and representatives of organizations working at the grass roots level from across Canada. They all emphasized that the lack of a minimum sentence period (Canada is one of only a few countries in the developed world without one) has encouraged traffickers to flock to Canada, and expressed their frustration with the grossly inadequate sentences given to Canada’s first convicted child traffickers. For instance, in a recent case, a trafficker was given an 11 month sentence after making hundreds of thousands of dollars through exploiting two young girls over a two year period. Human traffickers currently serve less jail time than drug traffickers do when caught in Canada. For these reasons and others, it is fundamental that a minimum sentence is implemented. However, as you point out, merely having a minimum sentence will certainly not lead to a real solution. Bill C-268, which has received broad support from all of the parties, NGOs, etc. will merely form a part of this solution. All of these groups recognize the need for a national action plan to combat all of the facets of human trafficking, including increased protection and resources for the victims. In fact, they are currently working on one. During the Global Advocacy Days, MP Joy Smith and Canada Fights Human Trafficking provided an overview of essential initiatives that the National Action Plan to combat human trafficking will and should contain.

  4. Karlee

    Hi Lisa,

    What a great assignment! I am not familiar with the case you mentioned, but I find it interesting that the men enslaved were Indian. Was the factory owner also Indian? 10 million out of the 27 million people in slavery today are in India. The majority of these 10 million are in debt bondage. See the interactive Slavery Map at for more information.

  5. P. Cummins

    Good article but why there should be trafficking in miners is beyond me. Is there a demand for subterranean sex? Seriously I think you mean “minors”.

  6. Karlee

    Yes, it is certainly a typo, as can be seen in the links readers are referred to in the blog post. My apologies for any confusion.

  7. philip

    i think a similar thing is about to happen a immigration agency is sending a group of nigerian to canada to work for two years and they have collected their passport and from their agreement on an sworn affidavit the will pay 10 percent of their income for two years untill the offset the sponsored trip that is worth 1,490,000 naira nigerian currency could this be another method of sending slaves to canada?

  8. Karlee

    Hi Philip, thank you for sharing this information. I encourage you to contact one of the following numbers to get advice: 1) RCMP Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre (Ottawa): 613-993-2325; 2) Crime Stoppers : 1-800-222-8477; or 3) Citizenship and Immigration Canada: 1-888-242-2100. If you would prefer to speak to our Alliance Against Modern Slavery, please send an e-mail to and we will be happy to contact you.

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