Two Nova Scotia women who work with women dragged into the sex trade are urging Ottawa to expand the definition of who can be charged with torture under the Criminal Code of Canada.

As of now, only government officials like police and military officers can be charged with torture. It's defined as "any act or omission by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person."

Regular civilians face assault charges.

Nurses Jeanne Sarson and Linda MacDonald want anyone who commits an extreme assault to face a charge of torture.

"It's not an assault. That's the crime that Canada wants to call it now. It goes way beyond assault. Torture is a different realm altogether," said MacDonald.

Their work started 20 years ago when Sarson met a woman who told her she had been tortured from a young age.

"Do we say 'We can't help,' or do we say 'We'll try to help.’ We tried to help and that just snowballed into more and more," she said.

"We decided ethically we couldn't leave her."


Nurses Jeanne Sarson, right, and Linda MacDonald are trying to fight global torture from their Truro basement. (CBC)


The pair now operates the website Persons Against Non-State Torture, offering  support services for torture victims in Nova Scotia and around the world. Their independent, volunteer service operates without government funding.

They said they want Nova Scotians to understand what’s happening in their province.

Sarson said in many cases trafficking rings are secretive groups, often families, who pretend to be hosting parties.

"That's a euphemism. They used to ask like-minded perpetrators to come to their party and they would torture. Usually sexualized torture, but physical torture goes along with it," she said.

"And they often are raped at least daily," added MacDonald. "Sometimes more than daily, and then you have your gang raping which is, you know, they bring in perpetrators to multiple rape their infant for profit, for money and for trafficking."

The pair is working alongside the Canadian Federation of University Women to lobby the Canadian government and the UN to broaden the definition of torture.

"I know that when survivors come to us there's only so much we can help them with, but we can at least let them know that there's someone out there who cares about them and believes them," said MacDonald.