Human Trafficking and Indigenous Women in the 21st Century

My speaking notes for my paper presentation today for Flaunting It 9. This was an amazing experience and it was great to hear all the other presenters share their knowledge. 


For my presentation, I will discuss how current human trafficking legislation and institutional definitions of domestic human trafficking specifically targets Indigenous women/girls. In addition to this, this paper presentation will discuss how colonial and oppressive legislation has negative implications regarding Indigenous women/girls agency and bodily autonomy, and in a much broader significance, Indigenous sovereignty. The two main papers that help situate human trafficking from the 20th century through to the 21st century are: The Traffic in Women essay by Emma Goldman and Canada and Migrant Sex-Work: Challenging the ‘Foreign’ in Foreign Policy by Leslie Ann Jeffrey. While Goldman’s Traffic in Women and Jeffrey’s Canada & Migrant Sex-Work address the same topic from different viewpoints, their main arguments are comparable which is a need to focus on human rights and workers’ rights. Their contrast is in their approach. Jeffrey adopts a post-colonial approach and Goldman adopts a victimist approach. The victimist approach is defined by Jeffrey as “part of a binary discourse of victim/perpetrator that makes it impossible to talk about migrant sex-workers as rights-bearing individuals who deserve to have those rights respected” (39). Subsequently, in her post-colonial framework, Jeffrey draws attention to sex workers’ right to work safely and autonomously.  Jeffrey argues, “trafficking, understood as exploitation within sex-work, occurs because of ignoring sex-workers’ rights to decriminalized and safe working conditions” (34). Thus, there is a fundamental need for sex workers’ who enter the trade autonomously to have their voices heard as opposed to the constant re-telling of the stories of victims of trafficking. 

Within a Canadian context, on November 25, 2005, Bill C-49, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (Trafficking in Persons), received its Royal Assent. This Bill introduced changes to the Criminal Code of Canada by including section 279 to address a concern over trafficking in women. Since the Bill received its Royal Assent, there has been a reported increase in concern of trafficking in Indigenous women. A report by The Standing Committee on the Status of Women writes, “[Indigenous] girls and women are at greater risk of becoming victims of trafficking within and outside Canada” (9). Then in November of that same year, a report was published by the First Nations Caring Society calling for more analysis, research, and documentation of trafficking in Indigenous women and girls (Sethi 68). In March 2010, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) released a complex report entitled Human Trafficking in Canada. While current research on this growing topic concerns itself with examining the causes of trafficking in Indigenous women and girls, there is little research that investigates the connections between exploration on Indigenous lands and the exploitation of Indigenous bodies, specifically Indigenous women’s bodies. Although Canada’s current anti-prostitution and anti-human trafficking legislation appear to work for the safety and security of individuals, these policies work to further advance the colonial agenda of the Canadian government by exploiting Indigenous lands and Indigenous bodies. 

Canada’s colonial agenda began with the creation of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP). Often ignored is the role the NWMP played in the criminalization of Indigenous peoples through the effects of carrying out Canada’s colonial agenda, which included the forced assimilation and civilization of Indigenous populations. In “Racialized Policing” Elizabeth Comack writes, “the project of colonizing the Indigenous population began in the seventeenth century [and] the colonial project involved a number of strategies” (69). One strategy included the enactment of the Indian Act in 1876. According to Comack, the NWMP role was to protect settlers’ missions to dominate and control Indigenous land by controlling Indigenous bodies through “implementing the government’s policies towards [Indigenous] people” Like the Indian Act. The Indian Act is a legislation that has undergone many changes since its enactment in 1876. Some changes were for the benefit of Canada’s Indigenous populations. However, the most underreported change that directly affected Indigenous women and girls are the prostitution sections that permitted the policing of Indigenous bodies and sexuality. Before the enactment of the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC) where Canada’s current anti-prostitution laws can be found, the anti-prostitution laws were first enacted in the Indian Act “by adding a series of provisions relating to prostitution” (Boyer 78). These sections relating to prostitution within the Indian Act underwent significant changes, which added more force and more provisions than their preceding sections. For instance, initial sections only affected Indigenous women. However, later modified sections affected both Indigenous men and women, and allowed for policing of Indigenous bodies and sexuality in their own homes (Boyer 78). Finally in 1892, the CCC was enacted and all sections relating to prostitution were removed from the Indian Act and then added to the CCC (Boyer 78). There is almost no recognition of this history of prostitution laws in Canada in current research that attempts to address the growing concern over human trafficking in Indigenous women and girls. As a consequence, the continued policing of Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality as being inherently tied to the colonization of Canada are often ignored. 

At the heart of this colonization is Othering where the Other is seen as the problem. In Decolonizing Methodologies,Linda T. Smith writes, “the ‘indigenous problem’ is a recurrent theme in all imperial and colonial attempts to deal with Indigenous peoples [and] concern about ‘the indigenous problem’ began as an explicitly militaristic or policing concern” (91). The Indigenous problem for Canada was initiated through its creation of policies and the problem was controlled by Canada’s policing agencies. Within Canada, human trafficking is policed under two distinct pieces of legislation. Domestically is it policed under the CCC which is similar to anti-prostitution laws. Domestic human trafficking in Indigenous women and girls is defined as being familial-based or gang related. It is often described as an exploitative relationship between two individuals where one controls, coerces, or forces another to do labour, which is most often sexual labour, through intimidation and violence, and the RCMP definition emphasizes that a human trafficking victim does not have to be moved to be trafficked. Some argue an emerging key trend relating to trafficking in Indigenous women and girls is the increased trafficking “due to flourishing oil rights and mining businesses in Alberta” (60). As mentioned earlier, research on this topic concerns itself with examining the causes of trafficking. As such there is little research that investigates the extent of resource extraction as way to exploit Indigenous lands and the creation of the problem of human trafficking as a way to police Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality. 

Linda T. Smith examines limitations of research through the discourse of the Indigenous problem. Smith states: 

“A continuing legacy of what has come to be taken for granted as a natural link between the term ‘indigenous’ (or its substitutes) and ‘problem’ is that many researchers, even those with the best of intentions, frame their research in ways that assume that the locus of a particular research problems lies with the indigenous individual or community rather than with other social or structural issues.” 

This growing concern over trafficking of Indigenous women and girls is initiated and maintained through Canadian policies, like Bill C-49, and through the continued policing of Indigenous bodies. When trafficking is seen as a problem within families and communities, they ignore, as stated earlier, the continued policing of Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality as being inherently tied to Canada’s colonial agenda. Consequently, institutions and researchers do not directly address the effects of Canada’s colonial agenda on Indigenous women and girls. With respect to domestic human trafficking, the RCMP adopts a victimist approach by defining a domestic human trafficking victim as someone who does not know they are victim. The RCMP removes agency from trafficking victims by defining who is a victim and who is deserving of being “saved.” This conceptualization of the victim in domestic human trafficking discourses indicates a disregard for the continued exploitation of Indigenous women’s bodies by designating who is a worthy victim which is demonstrative of the colonial agenda. This colonial agenda indicates a further exploitation of Indigenous lands and controlling of Indigenous women’s bodies. Susan Hawthorne, in “Land, Bodies, and Knowledge” makes this connection between women’s bodies and the land. Hawthorne writes, “both the land and women’s bodies have suffered colonialist intrusions, and both colonialist and imperial agendas have capitalized on exploiting women’s bodies and the land” (314). One might argue that there are legitimate human trafficking victims that are deserving of support and the services to help rehabilitate them. Yet, if human trafficking victims and their relationship to the human trafficking perpetrators are defined as exploitative, including having a fear for their life or experiences of violence, it can be counter-argued that the creation of these laws is excessive since there are other sections of the CCC that deal with violence, sexual exploitation, kidnapping, and other items that may classify a human trafficking victim’s experience. One might argue by not addressing domestic human trafficking that it will not bring justice to the families/friends of the 600+ missing and murdered Indigenous women. Yet, the RCMP emphasizes that a domestic human trafficking victim does not have to include the movement of the victim. In Trafficking of Aboriginal Women and Girls in Canada, Anette Sikka, also argues that conflating human trafficking with the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women “does an injustice to both issues.” This discussion of human trafficking and Indigenous women and girls begs the question: why are settlers so concerned with trafficking in Indigenous women and girls? 

In I am Woman, Lee Maracle highlights the aims of the colonial agenda from an Indigenous woman’s perspective. Lee Maracle writes, “the aims of the colonizer are to break up communities and families, and to destroy the sense of nationhood and the spirit of co-operation among the colonized” (91). Maracle reminds us of Canada’s colonial agenda in relation to the increasing concern over trafficking in Indigenous women and girls. The colonial agenda persists through the conceptualization of domestic trafficking victims, as being non-agents, and domestic trafficking perpetrators, as being closely related to Indigenous women and girls. The anti-prostitution and anti-human trafficking legislation continues to police Indigenous women’s bodies and sexuality, and allows for the increasing exploitation of Indigenous lands by ignoring the injustices that Indigenous people experience due to Canada’s colonial agenda. As a nation, Canada and Canadians need to be reminded of this colonial agenda and the ways in which this persists through the NWMP’s living legacy, the RCMP, and the exploitation of Indigenous lands and Indigenous bodies through our current anti-prostitution and anti-human trafficking legislation that continue to police Indigenous women bodies and sexuality.

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One thought on “Human Trafficking and Indigenous Women in the 21st Century

  1. Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
    This is a really good presentation looking at how measures that counter “human trafficking” (in the context of sexwork – since law-makers apparently never think about human trafficking in the childcare, agriculture, or construction industries…) are deeply linked with racism an colonialism in addition to sexism & whorephobia. Go have a look.

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