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A new law that goes into effect today will allow Manitoba courts to sell off pimps' cars and houses to award hefty damage settlements to their victims.
The Child Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking Act is the first provincial law to target the property of pimps and human traffickers for the benefit of victims who are lured, recruited or even kidnapped as part of illegal trafficking rings.
The primary targets are pimps who lure aboriginal girls from the remote north as well as foster children under the care of family service agencies.
"This is another one of the ways we are using our provincial powers to attack those who prey on others and to protect public safety," Attorney General Andrew Swan said.
The Selinger government sees the new law as a signal Manitoba is declaring it will not tolerate sex and labour rings operating within provincial boundaries.
Swan and Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard sat down for an exclusive interview to discuss highlights of the new law with the Free Press.
"We're the first province in the country to step up and implement such legislation to provide more protection and power to victims of these types of crimes," Howard said.
Unlike the earlier laws, proceeds won't be turned over to the province. They'll be set aside for victims who apply for damages in lawsuits before the Court of Queen's Bench.
Included in the legislation is a provision to allow victims to apply for awards, on top of damage awards, in separate civil suits for sexual assaults under the same ordeal.
But the court must be informed of prior settlements before making a judgment in a trafficking suit.
Trafficking rings target the vulnerable, luring and recruiting teens and even children from foster homes, parental homes across provincial boundaries and from other cities to exploit them.
Provinces lack the federal authority to amend the Criminal Code, Swan said, so the Manitoba government determined the best way to send a signal was to pass a law that made pimps pay for their crimes.
"We've already shown we've been successful through the safer communities and neighbourhood act and the criminal property forfeiture act," Swan said.
Under a law passed nearly a decade ago, Manitoba assumed the authority to seize cars and homes of drug dealers and criminals in organized crime, selling them off and redistributing the proceeds.
The province seized its first property through the forfeiture laws in 2010, when courts authorized the sale of a home listed at $279,000 in Lake Riviera Estates, about five kilometres east of Ste. Anne. It had been the site of a marijuana grow op.
The province announced at the time the proceeds would be put into a fund to assist crime victims, improve crime-prevention programs and cover court processes.
The difference with the anti-trafficking law is proceeds are directed for settlements to victims.
To make a claim, a victim or their guardian -- in the case of a child victim -- may seek a hearing before a judge.
The judge will base his or her decision on a balance of probabilities, a lighter burden of proof than the rule of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in criminal prosecutions.
A settlement can be ordered whether an offender has been convicted in a criminal court or not, Swan said.
Victims or their guardians may also choose to list assaults so damage awards can reflect the cumulative nature of their ordeals, the statute states.
The new legislation also includes a provision for civil-protection orders for child victims. They can be made in addition to no-contact orders used now by a child welfare agency, a parent or a legal guardian.
The difference with protection orders under the new law is they last longer, typically for three years, and they can be renewed.
There are no fees to apply for a protection order through the law and a justice of the peace can make an order over the phone in urgent cases, the statute states.
Work on the law began shortly after the provincial laws to seize the proceeds of crime were passed against drug dealers but they picked up steam after a tragic teen suicide.
In 2005, 14-year-old Tracia Owen hanged herself in a dilapidated garage in Winnipeg's West End, ending a downward spiral of drugs, prostitution and foster care.
Howard said Friday the new law bears Tracia's name in tribute to her.
"It is a key part of our strategy, called Tracia's Trust, to address sexual exploitation and human trafficking, targeting those who take advantage of others," Howard said.
Last year, 157 children at risk were rescued from Winnipeg streets and returned to safety.
Advocates welcomed the law as an additional tool for victims.
"Certainly, the benefit is that more tools will help victims in the long term. Any legislation has challenges and the more victims feel support to go through this process, the better," said Jane Runner, manager of TERF, a transition program for street kids under the province's social services agency New Directions.
Strategy of healing
THE issue of sexual exploitation of children and women has a deep political history in Manitoba, apart from the trauma it wreaks on individual lives.
In 2007, chief medical examiner Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra called an inquest to look into the issue of young girls and the sex and drug trade, because of Tracia Owen's suicide.
Subsequent disclosures at that inquest compelled the province to look at the issue of political interference in the work of native child welfare authorities. That issue is still being played out in the courts between aboriginal leaders and the province.
Tracia's law doesn't plug that hole in the province's legislative fabric. Instead, it attempts to support the victims of crime, as part of a wider $10-million victim-focused strategy. Some were related to public awareness, in which the scourge of child-sex exploitation was spotlighted in bus ads and billboards. In 2008, the province also spent $2.4 million hiring two dozen people for a Manitoba strategy to combat it with a plan that included a six-bed rural healing lodge to help kids entrenched in street life adjust to normal life.
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