Montreal·Video

'I ran for my life': Woman forced into sex trade works with police to help others at risk

It's before dawn on a wintry Sunday, and Kyra is busy preparing for a morning riding session at a horse stable on Montreal's South Shore. When she is anxious about her past or scared about her future, this is where Kyra finds peace.

Montreal police Survivors program expands to Indigenous outreach, with help from people who escaped sex work

A woman forced into prostitution opens up about how she escaped the sex trade, and how she's using her story to help police prevent others from heading down the same path. 3:16

It's before dawn on a wintry Sunday, and Kyra is busy preparing for a morning training session at the stables where she rides on Montreal's South Shore. 

She greets the horses in their stalls, feeding some of them carrots from the palm of her hand. This is where Kyra feels most at ease. 

"When I was 12, I started working at a barn with other kids," she said. "That was my escape. School and the horses were the only places that were peaceful for me."

As the sun rises, Kyra leads a horse outside and mounts. After a few warm-up laps, Kyra's coach asks her to kick it up a notch, and she canters off.

Kyra, whose identity we're protecting for her own safety, spent her childhood in and out of group homes and foster care.

Kyra, whose real name is not being used for her own safety, dreams of one day opening a horse therapy centre. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

At 17, she aged out of youth protection and found herself on her own. She got in with the wrong crowd. That's how she ended up forced into the sex trade.

"I trust animals more than people," she says now. "They have no intentions."

Kyra made a harrowing getaway after a few months and managed to rebuild her life. Now that life involves spending as much time as possible with horses. She hopes to go back to school and eventually open her own horse therapy centre aimed at First Nations clientele. 

Right now, she's also working with a Montreal police program called Les Survivants, or Survivors — a project to prevent sexual exploitation, support survivors of the sex trade and educate the public. 

Kyra is part of the latest addition to the project: a team of Indigenous survivors involved in outreach work and prevention, set up with $225,000 in funding from the province that's to last three years.

Const. Josée Mensales, the co-founder of the Survivor program, said the point is to help prevent more girls and boys from being preyed upon, while also giving hope to those still caught up in the sex trade.

"We don't want people defining themselves just as victims. It's more than that. Your past makes the strong person you've become. But it does not define you," Mensales said. 

"One day I just woke up, and I wasn’t allowed to leave," said Kyra, who ran away from being forced into prostitution. (Melinda Dalton/CBC)

More help needed for those not ready to leave

"What about women who are not ready to get out of [the sex trade]?" said Jessica Quijano, the co-ordinator of the Iskweu project, which works to reduce and eradicate the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls of Quebec. 

"My issues with these programs is that it's always about getting out of it and having these success stories." 

"It creates a lot of stigma and taboo for women who are not ready necessarily to get out of the industry," she said. "We should be supportive of those women, regardless of whether they're doing sex work or not." 

'We should be supportive of those women, regardless of whether they're doing sex work or not,' says Jessica Quijano, co-ordinator of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal's Iskweu project. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Quijano suggests the funding would be better spent by community organizations, to increase the number of outreach workers in Montreal, rather than having that money go to police, with their history of abuse and discrimination against Indigenous people. 

"I think it's positive if you're going to have Indigenous voices within a program like that, but anything in regards to the SPVM — I'm always very cautious."

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien is a reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.

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