'I was in darkness': How a Saskatoon safe house helped a woman find healing through art

One woman shares her story of how the support at a Saskatoon safe house — and its art classes — gave her the tools she needed to transform her life after escaping a toxic past.

'When I first got there, I was this dead wilted rose, but as the time went on I started growing'

The participant said art has become a way for her to express her emotions and deal with them. It's been helpful because it's not her style to talk through emotions. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Alice sketched out three versions of a rose with pencil and charcoal to show the metamorphosis of a wilted flower into a flourishing one.

The piece is symbolic of her own evolution, which unfolded during her time living at a Saskatoon safe house for women during the last year. 

"When I first got there, I was this dead wilted rose, but as the time went on I started growing." 

The woman is transitioning out of the Hope Restored program. The Saskatoon organization offers women who have been sexually exploited — or are at risk of that —  a safe place to go. It aims to help women escape dangerous situations and stabilize their lives. 

At the safe house, women are offered counselling services, mentorship and even art classes. The art classes have given Alice the space to show what she doesn't feel comfortable saying. 

CBC is referring to the woman as Alice, having agreed not to name the woman to protect her identity as she transitions from the safe house. 

A participant in the Hope Restored Canada program said she has personally transformed during her time at the safe house. She depicted this transformation through flowers. This photo has been altered to protect the identity of the participant. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Joeline Magill said Alice's story is just one example of how healing is possible for women fleeing abusive situations. 

"Coming from such a dark place and being able to move into that light, this is possible. It just requires support," said Magill, who is the executive director of the charity Hope Restored Canada. "That requires people being there, being present, believing in you." 

Magill said the program is designed for a one-year stay, but some participants, like Alice, will be ready to transition out earlier. Program participants have been aged 19 through 60, but the average is around 24 years old and most are mothers.

From dark to light 

Alice is a mother, too. She shared another drawing featuring a depiction of her baby's hand on top of her own. Her children were a huge motivating factor in leaving her old life behind. 

"I wanted my kids back. I wanted to lead a good life for my kids," she said. "I wasn't there for them for such a long time." 

The participant said she is excited about moving forward with her children. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

She's been able to get her children back during her time with Hope Restored. She said she left behind an abusive, toxic relationship in the past, as well as an addiction that nearly killed her.

Alice often laughs without restraint when she talks, but she said it's been a journey to find confidence and freedom within herself. She prefers charcoal, but put colour to paper to illustrate her progress. 

"Black, all at the very bottom, just because this is —  this was my bottom. I had hit bottom. I was in darkness," she said. It progresses up through grey and "s--t brown" to a deep red representing anger. 

She said the anger came from the way she let people treat her, but it transitions to a lighter red, symbolizing self-love. Next came purple, for spiritual growth, and finally yellow at the top as a symbol of true happiness. 

"It feels like I'm actually on a right path." 

The participant says she has finally been able to find happiness — a feeling that at one point seemed unattainable after years of pain. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

All demographics affected

Magill said the program primarily works with Indigenous participants, but there are women coming from all demographics and economic statuses. 

"There's a significant part of the sex trade where they're not there by choice. They're there because they feel they don't have any other options. They're there because they've been manipulated. They're there because they're being held by their own will, whatever that might look like," she said. Magill said it's often someone known to the women facilitating the exploitation, including spouses or an aunt. 

While each situation is unique, she said what's common is a need for support. 

"They just deserve and want to be loved and accepted and seen and valued."  

Magill said people tend to brush off sexual exploitation, suggesting it's "just the way things are" or assume trafficking only exists in larger communities. 

"It's happening in Saskatchewan," she said. 

Magill said Hope Restored is a "grassroots charity" that operates on donations and grants, but is seeking stable funding. 

Joeline Magill, executive director of Hope Restored Canada, said she wanted to create an agency to support victims of sexual exploitation after realizing how close to home it was happening. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

Emma Ganton, program co-ordinator for Hope Restored Canada, said they're dreaming of expansion. She said they'd like to offer off-site programming, to operate long-term housing and an intake (stabilization) home. She said the number one goal of the live-in home is to help women feel safe. 

"We want them to be able to heal their bodies physically, and then we want them to be able to heal emotionally and grow spiritually and mentally," she said.

Ganton said the programs and long-term recovery plans are tailored to the participants.

"There's also a lot of autonomy. We give the women that we work with a lot of freedom," she said. "This is about how can we give you the tools to heal your own life. If you mess up, we're still here." 

Magill said the house will help women as long as they don't engage in sex work while at the home and don't use substances. However, she said participants are not kicked out of the program if they experience a relapse. She said that's expected as a part of recovery. 

Alice said she was surprised by how much support she received in the program. It helped her to develop stronger self-esteem and confidence in her choices, she said. Alice was also able to form relationships with women facing similar challenges. 

She encouraged other women trying to escape an abusive situation to hold on to hope.

"It gets a lot better if you open up and do what needs to be done to heal," she said.

Alice said she's looking forward to what's ahead, especially a lifetime with her children. She reflected on her drawings of the evolving rose.

"I didn't draw a fully blossomed one, just because I don't think I'm ever going to be done growing."