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‘A serious problem’: MP Karen Vecchio is shining a light on human trafficking in Canada

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Conservative Member of Parliament Karen Vecchio. MP Vecchio was first elected in the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London in 2015. She has since served in multiple roles including Deputy House Leader, Shadow Minister for Women and Gender Equality, and most recently she was appointed Shadow Minister for Women, Gender Equality and Youth. In these roles, she has distinguished on a number of key files, including human trafficking. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: Thanks for joining me, MP Vecchio.

MP KAREN VECCHIO: Thanks for speaking to me, Sean.

Abuse and human trafficking

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with your recent shadow cabinet appointment. What do you hope to achieve in the role? And what specifically do you think Conservatives and conservative ideas can bring to bear to issues relevant to women, gender equality, and youth?

MP KAREN VECCHIO: Well, thanks so much for that question. It’s a great honour because there are many passions that I have. 

Even before being named to this role as Shadow Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, I actually started working on some projects of passion. One of them has to deal with domestic violence. I looked at some of the changes that were made by the Liberal government last year that approach domestic violence with a focus on guns. The way I look at it is in a much more holistic approach. What we need to do basically starts with mentorship programs that target youth and include other preventive measures on domestic violence. I know that the government has put in measures with gun control, but I think about the factors that contribute to domestic violence before an incident and we need to ensure we have the services available to deal with those. 

I really work on empowerment of women: empowering women to know that if they’re in an abusive relationship that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that they can do it. So, a big part of my work will focus on women empowerment, and ensuring that we have resources to help women, girls, and others in those types of situations. 

I’m also working a lot with safe communities. Conservatives have been very strong when we talk about safe communities, including issues related to guns, gangs, sex trafficking, and sexual exploitation. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work with some of the best in the community, such as the London Abused Women’s Centre—today I’m wearing my purple jacket shining the light on women abuse. They also deal with sex trafficking and human trafficking. And then Courage for Freedom, a group that works with youth under the age of 18 who have been sexually exploited. 

Those are two really important items to me and I think it’s because of the community that I’m representing. I’ve got the advocates here in my community, and they just empowered me to dig into those issues and advance these files. Those are things that I had worked on when I was the previous Shadow Minister for Women and Gender Equality, and those are things that I’ll continue to work on in my new role. 

A big part of my work involves engaging with law enforcement. I’ve been interviewing police officers and the police chiefs in my own riding; I’ve just finished with my fourth police chief today. We talked about a range of issues including legislation (such as Bill C-75 which was introduced in the 42nd Parliament and will likely be reintroduced in the new parliament) that may contribute to our communities becoming more unsafe. I’m working therefore with stakeholders on common-sense solutions that can make progress on these issues. Those are some of the initiatives that I’ve already started on. 

SEAN SPEER: If I can just pick up one issue you raised. Well before your current appointment, one issue where you’ve really distinguished yourself is as a thought leader and an activist is the subject of human trafficking. I suspect a lot of our readers would be surprised to learn that Canada is prone to significant issues with respect to human trafficking. Why don’t you give people a sense of how human trafficking manifests itself in Canada, and what can policymakers do to better protect women and youth from the scourge of human trafficking?

MP KAREN VECCHIO: This is an issue that I’ve worked on for some time with the London Abused Women’s Centre. It’s a serious problem that transcends all economic and social classes. It can touch women who are affected by poverty and need extra money and in some cases can end up exploited that way. 

We can also look at young girls who fall victim to the so-called “Romeo approach”: men who are selling people a better life, and then that ultimately leads to women being exploited and their bodies being sold. These issues are complex and multifaceted. There’s just not an easy fix. But we have to make sure that we’re advising people and making them aware of these things happening in our own communities.

It’s not just a big city issue either. I remember a couple of years ago, in Port Stanley, there were three different cases dealing with human trafficking. We’re talking about a village of roughly 1800 people through the regular season to an increase of about 3000 to 4000 during tourist season, and it was confronting issues of increased sexual exploitation. We have to look at the fact that a lot of times that these criminals are targeting youth, and of course right now that is often done online where young girls and boys can be reached. 

The Vancouver Collective Against Sexual Exploitation is another organization with whom I’ve worked. It’s an incredible place, and I’ve been working with some people who are former prostitutes, and who have shed a lot of light on how they got into that role. A lot of times it starts with them being abused at home. So, we have to look at all of these different factors, how children are traumatized, and how people end up going down those paths. 

These really are issues that are present all over the country, and especially the [Highway] 401 area where we live. It’s one of the biggest and fastest highways that we have here, and it connects the province from Windsor at the Detroit border to New York and the Buffalo border. We have seen multiple human trafficking sites along that highway system. The number of young girls and women being trafficked on the 400 series is incredible. Some of those hotels that are just right off the beaten path are often where we’re finding it’s happening. And of course, with Airbnb, we’re seeing a huge change where people are renting some of these lavish places and using them to exploit young girls for profit. 

Serving constituents

SEAN SPEER: Before getting into elected life, you worked as an aide and advisor to elected officials. Having now been a parliamentarian yourself, what do you think an aide or an advisor doesn’t fully understand about the role? What do you wish you could have told your former self to better serve a Member of Parliament?

MP KAREN VECCHIO: That’s really interesting because I actually see it on both ends. With members of parliament, I think that they should actually go in and be an aide in an office for a few months. I think that they actually should be taking cases for Canada Revenue Agency and Service Canada and understand the bureaucratic side to it. I think it would help MPs better understand the system and ultimately do a better job. 

What I would have told myself, though, is don’t take things so personally. In this job, you are trying to do your best, and you’re trying to be responsive to so many people. I have 116,000 constituents, and I truly do my best to make sure that they’re fully represented. But I do understand that sometimes it becomes very personal and there are limits to everyone being happy or satisfied with your positions or decisions. 

The question that I often ask myself is: how do I represent the majority of people in my riding and ensure that I’m there for them? The answer ultimately lies with listening to everybody and trying to be their voice but not taking it personally if people disagree with you. 

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned your riding a couple of times. You represent a part of the country where the Conservative Party needs to ultimately perform better if the party hopes to form government. What lessons or insights from your experience may have relevance for the party breaking through in other parts of southern and southwestern Ontario?

MP KAREN VECCHIO: I’m really fortunate because my riding is Elgin-Middlesex-London, which includes the core base of Elgin County across from Rodney to Staffordsville as well as Thames Centre, which is seen as a bit of a bedroom community to the City of London, yet it has lots of great manufacturing and innovation happening there. But I also have a part of the centre of London and represent a good portion of the city itself.

London has about 425,000 people, and its political representation is diverse: there are two Liberal MPs, one NDP, and then me. There are four members of parliament representing three different political parties. 

What I would really say is you need to be in those communities working to meet people and connect with them. For any political party, whether it is Liberal or Conservative, you need to be part of the fabric of that community if you ultimately want to be successful. I’ve really noticed that a personal touch is important. There are places where just right across the road, you’ll have a Liberal MP and then on the other side is part of my riding. I’ll have won that poll and my Liberal colleague has won the other one. You might think “Well, how does that work?” I think the answer lies in these personal connections and relationships. 

You should be involved in your community, whether it’s as part of the Chamber of Commerce, Big Brothers or Big Sisters, or anything that’s present and active in the community. It could be something through economic development, but you should really be involved in your community. 

So I’m really engaging in the community in London, and although I’m only one of four MPs, I think it’s important for people in the community to see and hear our side. Even though I don’t represent three-quarters of the people there, I do recognize that my voice is still very important if we ever want to pick up seats in that area. 

A lot of outreach needs to take place to build those relationships years before an election. That’s when you need to start building. And so, I recognize that if I want to have sisters, brothers, and friends from next door that are Conservatives, that I need to start building that pathway for them as well.

Think tanks

SEAN SPEER: We met once before at an event held by the Cardus Institute, a think tank based in Ottawa and Hamilton. 

MP KAREN VECCHIO: Great organization.

SEAN SPEER: Indeed. I don’t typically see a lot of MPs engaging with think tanks and external scholars. What in your view is the main impediment? Are there things that think tanks can do to make their research more relevant and accessible for elected officials?

MP KAREN VECCHIO: Well, for me, it’s really important to be engaged and to understand the opinions. I think it depends on how you’re coming at it. I come at everything from a 360-degree perspective. One thing I know is there’s your side of the story, my side of the story, and then the truth. There’s always got to be three opinions. 

For me, it’s really important to go into places like Cardus, and to go around and speak to these different groups to get their analysis of issues and what they’re seeing on the ground. Outreach and engagement with think tanks and other groups is a big part of my job. 

Think tanks can sometimes bring to you an issue that you just may not be aware of. They may be seeing something that you’re blinded to, or you just have not had your world opened up to. I prefer to meet with people with different opinions. I know what my opinion is; I know where it comes from. I want to know why you think differently. And from there, I think it’s always better to find a balance. I have five kids, so I think that’s where it all came from. When you have five children, and you all have to eat the same dinner, you better figure out what people like and you better find a balance. And so, that’s the way I encounter and enter into politics.

SEAN SPEER: Well, I think it’s fair to say that politics would be well served if everybody started with that philosophy. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, MP Vecchio. Congratulations again on your appointment and good luck in your new role. 

MP KAREN VECCHIO: Thank you so much, Sean.