Crime

A conviction in human trafficking is the exception, not the norm

Owen Gibson-Skeir sentencing rescheduled to March 31

Halifax provincial courthouse located at 5250 Spring Garden Rd.   Sindi Skenderi

When Owen Gibson-Skeir is finally sentenced on human trafficking charges, it will mark a break in a trend and potentially serve as a landmark case in Nova Scotia.

Gibson-Skeir is the province’s first convicted human trafficker. He pleaded guilty in Halifax provincial court on Dec. 21 in a case involving a 14-year-old girl.

He was expected to be sentenced Wednesday, but that hearing has been moved to March 31. At that time, the court will address two additional charges of provocation and threatening violence. He allegedly threatened his victim as he was hauled from court on Dec. 21.

On Wednesday, the judge reaffirmed in provincial court that the Crown was seeking a seven-year sentence for the human trafficking and sexual assault conviction.

It is shocking that statistically, Gibson-Skeir’s conviction for human trafficking is the exception, not the norm.

Since the introduction of amended human trafficking laws in 2005, there have only been a handful of convictions in Canada.

According to Statistics Canada, between 2009 and 2014, there were 396 victims of human trafficking nationwide. Approximately 93 per cent of the victims were female and roughly one-quarter was under the age of 18.

So why is it so difficult to get a conviction on human trafficking charges?

Difficulties

Jonathan Shapiro, a law professor at Dalhousie University, says there are multiple obstacles to getting a conviction. Namely, the problems lie with the complexity of the Criminal Code of Canada and problems with witnesses.

“You don’t have to prove actual trafficking,” says Shapiro, who teaches criminal law. “But what you do have to prove is that the reason a person was confined or assaulted was done for the purpose of human trafficking. Getting into the mind of the person who did the trafficking, that is quite a difficult piece of law to prove.”

However, human trafficking charges are almost always accompanied by other charges, like assault or possession. Often, because human trafficking is so difficult to prove, offenders will be convicted of these lesser crimes and the sentences reflect that.  

“The sentencing you’re getting is not for any significant periods of time; you’d be getting them off the streets, but really all you are doing is getting a conviction like any other conviction,” says Shapiro.
“It really doesn’t make much progress.”

The second difficulty can be the witnesses themselves. Human traffickers prey on the young and inexperienced and, in 91 per cent of cases, the victims knew their abusers. Due to this, victims are hesitant to come forward and find it difficult to legally navigate complicated relationships with their abusers.

Shapiro says this is why it makes it difficult to get a conviction.

“You’ve got the evidence situation, the international aspect of it, you have the vulnerability and the unwillingness of people to testify and you’ve usually got a lesser charge available,” he says.  “When you add all those factors up, you’ve got a crime that we don’t get very many prosecutions on.”

Gibson-Skeir will remain behind bars until his sentencing on March 31 at provincial court in Halifax.