Original Published 16:03 May 16, 2022

By Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Albert McLeod believes the hotel industry in Manitoba has a role to play in preventing Indigenous women and girls from being sexually exploited, and he hopes that new proposed legislation will now put more of an onus on those in the industry to speak up if they believe someone is being trafficked, and to recognize the signs of exploitation.

“Really I think it’s a wake-up call across the hotel industry and really across all industries that we have to get everyone up to speed and educated about sexual exploitation, and we need staff in all industries trained in these matters,” said McLeod, a long-time Winnipeg-based advocate for Indigenous women and girls.

“There needs to be total buy in, and there needs to be an acknowledgement of what is really happening.”

McLeod’s comments come in response to last week’s introduction of a new bill in the Manitoba Legislature that would require those working in hotels, and other temporary accommodation businesses to report any suspected human trafficking to local police.

If passed, the Hospitality Sector Customer Registry Act would also require hotel operators and online accommodation platforms to collect personal information from guests, and it would give greater powers to law enforcement to get their hands on that information to investigate possible sexual exploitation and related crimes.

Fines for non-compliance for individuals and corporations would range from a minimum fine of $5,000 to a maximum of $100,000.

“This bill creates a duty to report by those who often have a line of sight into exploitation, and will make Manitoba a leader with some of the strongest laws in the nation on combating sexual exploitation and human trafficking,” Families Minister Rochelle Squires said in the Manitoba Legislation last week while introducing the bill.

“This will also help law enforcement garner the tools that they need to stop sexual exploitation of our vulnerable children and youth.”

Although he agrees with the intentions of the bill, McLeod said it will only help if hotel staff and operators are educated not only about sexual exploitation, but also about how and why exploitation continues to disproportionately effects Indigenous women and girls in Manitoba.

“It is a call for those in the industry to be preventative and proactive, but to also ensure they understand the larger dynamics of the issue,” McLeod said.

According to findings in the Protecting Sacred Lives report, which was completed in Canada by AMR Planning and Consulting, more than 400 children and youth in the city of Winnipeg are exploited each year, and between 70-80% of those victims are believed to be Indigenous.

The study also states that “most participants have a family history that involves residential schools and/or the child welfare system.”

In a statement reacting to the proposed legislation, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Acting Grand Chief Cornell McLean said AMC continues to be concerned about ongoing incidents of Indigenous women and girls in Manitoba being exploited and trafficked.

“First Nations children and youth are targets of the sex trade at disparate rates in comparison to their non-First Nations peers, and there is a reason for that,” McLean said. “Institutionalization via the child and family services system and justice system, combined with constant removal and replacement creates incredible chaos in the lives of First Nations youth.

“This makes them vulnerable to dangerous people luring them into exploitation with promises of money and stability, only to experience manipulation and various levels of abuse.”

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Regional Chief for Manitoba Cindy Woodhouse said there is also concern among some that the new legislation could lead to more Indigenous people being targeted by police, and she hopes that if it passes, that it will focus on perpetrators, and not on victims.

“We hope that with such legislation, it does not become an excuse to increase policing of First Nations children and youth, and that the focus lies on the individuals and systems that create these violent conditions that harm our families,” Woodhouse said in a statement.

This item reprinted with permission from Winnipeg Sun, Winnipeg, Manitoba