Bill 251 puts everyone in Ontario at risk of being unduly policed. This is not just a privacy and profiling issue for some — it is a human rights issue for all

Posted on May 22, 2021 in Child & Family Policy Context

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion/Contributors

The Ontario government’s repeated pattern of short-sighted law enforcement responses to issues that actually demand meaningful investments in social supports is alarming. In April 2021, for example, Premier Doug Ford announced the expansion of police powers to stop and interrogate people for perceived COVID-19 lockdown infractions — a power that would have been inflicted upon Black, Indigenous, and unhoused people in grossly disproportionate ways.

This announcement was met with immediate public outrage. In a matter of hours, the proposal was scrapped, and Premier Ford later issued a mea culpa.

With far less fanfare, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones introduced Bill 251 in February 2021, with the stated intent to combat human trafficking and provide support for survivors. But a closer examination of the bill again reveals the Ontario government’s fixation on granting police ever-expanding authority that would severely jeopardize the safety and human rights of sex workers and racialized communities.

First, Bill 251 empowers police to continue their problematic legacy of conflating sex work and human trafficking. Recent human trafficking initiatives in Ontario demonstrate how law enforcement are incentivized to surveil sex workers — particularly Asian, Black, Indigenous and migrant sex workers — under the guise of “protection.” High profile anti-trafficking investigations, including “raid and rescue” operations ostensibly motivated by a desire to guard youth and vulnerable women, have instead resulted in the harassment, detention and arrest of sex workers, and the deportation of migrant sex workers. Bill 251 would double down and perpetuate these many harms.

Bill 251 also gives expansive and excessive powers to police and “inspectors,” an entirely new category of law enforcement solely tasked with investigating human trafficking. The proposed law would authorize inspectors, without a warrant or notice, to enter any place at any time to investigate human trafficking and to examine, demand, remove or copy anything they deem to be relevant. This would give investigators frighteningly wide latitude, based on their discretion alone. Such unchecked powers are arguably broader than the search and seizure capabilities that police already have in emergency circumstances. Alarm bells should be ringing.

And troublingly, individuals ensnared in these investigations must comply and answer all questions, or risk a $50,000 fine. Sex workers already face a barrage of negative consequences for engaging in criminalized labour, including stigma, discrimination, the possibility of eviction, travel bans, criminal charges and loss of immigration status. Bill 251 would require them to disclose details of their work without ever knowing whether an inspector’s questions are truly above board.

Anyone suspected of committing an offence would also be compelled to answer questions despite their charter-protected right to remain silent. Sex workers face extraordinarily heavy-handed and excessive fines if they do not co-operate, a coercive approach that is compounded for migrant workers who may not speak English. These provisions present serious human rights concerns and are unlikely to withstand constitutional scrutiny.

If that weren’t enough, Bill 251 delegates power to the government to make regulations requiring a potentially limitless category of persons to report instances of suspected human trafficking. A de facto “snitch” pipeline plus sweeping surveillance would certainly lead to major and unwarranted intrusions on privacy and contribute to additional profiling of racialized sex workers, driving them into further isolation.

But make no mistake: Bill 251 puts us all at risk of being unduly policed. Under this bill, law enforcement can access hotel guest records for everyone. They could inspect anywhere, including private homes and businesses. This is not just a privacy and profiling issue for some; it is a human rights issue for all.

Bill 251 would insidiously enshrine a bloated law enforcement model that — true to this Ontario government — deflects attention and resources away from real, sustainable solutions that tackle poverty, precarious immigration status and lack of access to affordable housing, health and social services and labour protections. Ontario’s policy-makers must scrap this bill. The City of Toronto should also stand against it, refusing to participate in practices that would alienate residents from crucial municipal services. Communities need actual support, not knee-jerk policies that divert resources to police and harm the most vulnerable among us.

Sandra Ka Hon Chu is director of research and advocacy for the HIV Legal Network. Elene Lam is the founder and executive director of Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex workers support network.

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