Given the frequent language barrier, young francophone Quebecers are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation when trafficked outside the province, the co-chair of a provincial commission examining the sexual exploitation of minors said Monday.
Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Ian Lafrenière, a former Montreal police commander, said when police in other provinces break up sex-trafficking rings, they often find underage victims from Quebec.
"You take a kid from Montreal: she's 14; she's not speaking fluently English. You bring her to Calgary. Well, you know what? She's going to be more vulnerable. It's going to be hard for her to get help because of the language barrier," Lafrenière said at a news conference in the lead-up to the Montreal hearings.
The commission was launched last November in an attempt to get a handle on what police say is a growing problem in the province.
A preliminary report released at the time said four out of ten Quebec victims of sexual exploitation are minors.
More than 300 establishments in Montreal and 630 across the province offer sexual services, the report said.
But it also noted girls and young women from Quebec are frequently trafficked out of province, where they are less likely to speak the language of the majority, have a social network or know where to go for help.
Hotel, Grand Prix officials asked to be vigilant
Last October, police arrested 31 people as part of a sweeping investigation into an Ontario-based human trafficking and organized crime ring that operated around Canada.
The majority of the women came from Quebec, police said at the time.
The commission held a first round of hearings in Quebec City in November. It will head to Val-d'Or, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, later this week.
In Montreal, the commission will hear from local police and prevention workers, along with representatives from the hotel industry and the Grand Prix.
Liberal MNA Christine St-Pierre, also a co-chair of the commission, said it's important to hear from a variety of perspectives.
"Montreal is very attractive for these events and also the hotels. It is very important to talk to them and to say to them that they have to be involved in this situation, and they have to be aware that they have to be partners," she said.
Longueuil police offer advice
The Longueuil police service (SPAL), which launched a team to support victims of sexual exploitation last year, recommended Monday that police keep better tabs on what's going on — reaching out to teachers or parents of teenagers even if a crime has yet to be committed.
"Sometimes it's not criminal, but we have something to do anyway, and we should do something," said SPAL spokesperson Ghyslain Vallieres. "Also, we want police officers to be more human in the way they're seeing those victims."
He said Longueuil police are working with a Montreal group that's fighting sexual exploitation, the Concertation des luttes contre l'exploitation sexuelle (CLES), to "open the eyes of the police officers on our territory" so they can better understand what victims go through.
Those victims are sometimes as young as 12, and they often don't see their abuser as a pimp, but as a lover," he said. They often don't want to press charges when the police intervene.
SPAL's new team provides social and psychological support, rather than focusing immediately on criminality, he said. This approach has helped lead to convictions, even if the victim at first didn't want to press charges.
"We have to be creative. We have think outside of the box, and that's what we are doing at the SPAL," Vallieres said.