If you had asked anyone to describe Donald Bakker they would likely have said he was just an ordinary Canadian — a loving father and husband who lived a middle-class lifestyle, working regular hours at Vancouver banquet halls and donating part of his modest salary to an international children’s charity.
No one would have called him a child predator, but in 2005 Bakker became the first Canadian to be convicted under the country’s sex tourism law after an investigation found that he paid seven young girls in Cambodia to have sex with him.
Canada has had laws in place since 1997 that allow Canadian authorities to prosecute citizens who have committed sex crimes against children overseas. However, in the last decade, Canada has only convicted three people under its sex tourism law, a new study out of British Columbia has found.
The study’s author, Benjamin Perrin, a law professor and Canadian expert on sex tourism, says that Canadian men are actively contributing to the problem of child exploitation in troubled countries such as Cambodia and Thailand.
And although Canadian authorities have all the legal tools they need to go after the offenders, they are lacking an enforcement strategy to effectively tackle the problem, he said. The result is that offenders can travel to these troubled countries knowing that they likely won’t be investigated.
Several countries around the world have investigators stationed overseas, actively pursuing their nationals who travel to sex tourism hotspots looking for young prey.
Australia is perhaps the best example of a country proactively pursuing offenders. Southeast Asia is the number one vacation destination for Aussies, and as a result the country has stationed Australian officers in several countries in the region and officials have forged a working relationship with the foreign police.
Canadian officials are not ignoring the issue, Perrin says, but their resources are being spent on tracking drug trafficking networks, terrorism links and sales of weapons.
“What’s clearly missing is the political will,” he tells CTV.ca in a recent interview. “More resources should be allocated to administer these laws.”
Perrin calls the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s approach to the issue “accidental prosecution” — because authorities often stumble upon the evidence rather than actively pursue the perpetrators, like the Australians do.
In Bakker’s case, it was Vancouver’s police force that stumbled upon video footage of the man having sex with Cambodian children. Local authorities were probing Bakker’s past after he was charged with assaulting Vancouver prostitutes. The videotape was accidentally discovered when police executed a search warrant on his property.
Challenges to police
The RCMP did not return messages left by CTV.ca but a Toronto sex crimes police officer who has travelled to Cambodia for work says that Canadian authorities have a number of issues that challenge their ability to go after sex offenders overseas.
A big part of the problem is that the police forces in most impoverished countries where children are part of the sex trade lack the resources to build an effective network with international authorities, says Det. Const. Janelle Blackadar.
In some cases the police forces are on such a tight budget they don’t even have enough gasoline in their cars to respond to a call.
Corruption is also a big problem for law enforcers as it is quite common for suspects to bribe authorities to drop the charges. Because money is so scarce, bribes are often accepted.
“People are very poor, so of course money is going to influence them,” Blackadar says.
“It’s not the same police society we have here,” she continues. “It’s not good business to investigate the (wealthy) businessmen who contribute to the country’s economy.”
Blackadar says money is also the reason why families push their children into the sex trade.
“Children there realize at a very early age how life is going to be for them,” she says. “Families will sell their daughter’s virginity. Families profit from this.”
“It’s been part of their society for so long, it’s part of their culture almost,” she adds.
NGO’s to the rescue
The difference in attitudes towards children and sex is probably the biggest challenges international authorities face. Acceptance and widespread corruption make it difficult for investigators to collect evidence.
Most of the time, Blackadar says, evidence is collected by people who work at non-governmental organizations who have made it their mission to stop child trafficking and exploitation.
They collect evidence and pass it on to the appropriate authorities in hopes they’ll be able to prosecute the offender.
Rosalind Prober is one such activist whose work has helped put Canada on the right track.
She is behind the “Prober amendment” to Canada’s child sex tourism legislation, which was introduced in 1996. The amendment allowed authorities to prosecute Canadians who have committed crimes against children in other jurisdictions.
Today, the Winnipeg resident is arguably Canada’s most influential lobbyist in the issue of sex tourism and has co-founded an organization called Beyond Borders, which helps tackle child exploitation
Prober was in Toronto on July 30 to launch a campaign with the Body Shop and the Somaly Mam Foundation, which fights human trafficking.
In an interview, Prober tells CTV.ca that Canada has simply not made the issue of sex tourism a priority.
Aside from stationing more RCMP officers in troubled countries, changes also need to be made to Canada’s national sex offender registry, she says.
Prober and several other organizations including World Vision Canada have called for the government to issue travel warnings for people who have been convicted of sex offences in Canada and who travel abroad after serving their sentence.
“They can take their passport and say goodbye to Canada and get right back to business,” she says.
Part of the solution, Prober suggests, is to make the registry public.
“These people are put right back into society anonymously,” she says. “The registry is inadequate.”
She admits that issuing travel advisories would be a “bureaucratic nightmare” as lawyers would have a field day arguing for the individual’s right to freedom of mobility.
“It’s just a matter of whose rights are going to trump whose rights,” Prober says with a sigh.
For Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who was brutally raped as a child and sold into a brothel, the issue has never been about rights. It has been about survival.
Tired of talking
Mam was also in Toronto this week, visiting from Cambodia to share her experience and to persuade the Canadian public to take action.
She tells CTV.ca that speaking engagements are how she helps raise funds for the shelters and foundation she helps run, but that in truth, she is tired of all the talking.
“I don’t understand what we are doing by talking,” Mam says. “Talking is great but we need more reacting. While we keep talking, pedophiles are going into our country and killing our children.
“I’m so fed up, I’ve spent so much time writing letters.” she says.
Her frustration is palpable and when she explains her current life in Cambodia, it becomes easy to understand why she is so angry.
Her shelters, scattered throughout southeast Asia, have saved about 6,000 girls. Each houses about 200 girls, some as young as five, all of whom call her “mommy.”
She never turns anyone away despite the fact that sometimes there is not enough money to feed everyone. Her goal is to keep them safe and away from predators, 30 per cent of whom are tourists, she says.
The efforts have resulted in her being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009. Nonetheless, she realizes her limitations and says while she helps girls get out of the sex trade, she alone can’t stop the problem.
“Only political power has the power to stop it,” she says. “Not me.”
Part of the problem Mam sees with international authorities is their lack of co-ordination across borders. By comparison, criminal organizations tend to be extremely organized.
She says the general public must put pressure on their governments to act, if a solution is to be found.
“I do this because this is my life, but you have a great life and yet you are all here,” she tells a crowd of about 50 people gathered at a human trafficking rally in Toronto on July 31.
Mam says despite the frustrations and tribulations she continues to face in Cambodia, she is in no hurry to move from her home.
Her suffering as a child has driven her to help other children survive the same atrocities she faced at the hands of pedophiles.
“Those little girls teach me everyday to stand up and love,” she says at the rally, choking up with emotion. “Being a victim is your whole life. You never forget it.”