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Forced to return to court and testify, N.S. human trafficking survivor feels angry, ‘helpless’

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WATCH: Nova Scotia has the highest reported rates of human trafficking in Canada. One survivor shares her story of strength and resilience and she prepares to face her alleged perpetrator in court for a second time. Global News’ Elizabeth McSheffrey has the story.

Editor’s note: This story deals with disturbing details of human trafficking and the sexual abuse of a minor. Reader discretion is advised.

She fought to escape the people who held her captive and trafficked her. She fought to get the police to investigate them and the men who abused her.

She fought through a traumatizing court process and now, she has to go through another trial — and she’s getting tired of fighting.

“It’s hard to relive the same story and tell it over and over again, and have a defence lawyer break down my character and make me feel like I deserved what happened to me,” said Chelsea, a survivor of human trafficking, in an interview.

Chelsea is not her real name, which is protected by a publication ban. She’s sharing her story publicly, she said, to let others know they’re not alone, and to warn families that it can happen to anyone — even in a small province like Nova Scotia.

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The promise of a better life

It started when Chelsea was 16.

A friend introduced her to Kyle Pellow and Renee Webber, a couple who would later be arrested as the alleged perpetrators in her case.

Read more: Online course educates Nova Scotians on how to recognize and prevent sexual exploitation

Shortly after they met, Chelsea said Pellow promised her more money and a better life.

“He was very manipulative and almost condescending in the way that he made it seem like he knew more than I did about my own life and what I could do in my life,” she told Global News.

“And kind of promising me that he could change my life and that I could make lots of money and have the life that I always wanted.”

She didn’t realize what was really happening, she added, until it was far too late.

Chelsea, a human trafficking survivor, is sharing her story publicly to let others know they’re not alone. Elizabeth McSheffrey / Global News

Soon, Chelsea was cut off from her friends and family. She described being trafficked at hotels and motels in Halifax, Toronto and Moncton, N.B. before making the bold decision to escape.

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A few months later, she waited until Pellow and Webber were out of the house in Nova Scotia before hastily packing her belongings in garbage bags and calling her mother to come get her.

Trafficking conviction overturned

Pellow and Webber were arrested in 2016. Two years later, Pellow pleaded guilty to trafficking a minor, advertising for sexual services and a breach of recognizance, and was sentenced to six years in prison.

He was granted day parole in 2019, then left on a statutory release in May 2020.

In 2018, Webber was also convicted of advertising to provide sexual services, receiving a financial or material benefit, procuring a person under the age of 18 years, and touching for a sexual purpose.

Read more: Woman jailed four years for luring 16-year-old girl into prostitution

Her conviction was overturned earlier this year, meaning those charges have not been conclusively proven in court. A new trial was ordered to begin on April 1, 2022, and she, too, is now free on release conditions.

After working so hard to obtain justice, Chelsea is now the one who now feels like a prisoner.

“I feel scared and almost helpless that there is nothing that I can do about the way the justice system works for cases like this,” she said.

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“I’m the person who is stuck living with the situation and having to look over my shoulder and worry about where I go and what I do.

“It just doesn’t feel fair that I have to live like this and they get to live free.”

Playing detective

According to Chelsea’s mother, who Global News will refer to as Angela, Chelsea was a happy girl growing up, who got good grades and was well-liked by her teachers.

The challenge began in her early teens, as she struggled with her mental health. She made a new friend in high school, who Angela learned was “involved in the sex trade.” Looking back, she believes this is when the grooming process began.

Chelsea ended up leaving their home at 16 after an argument about whom she was hanging around with.

“I regret that,” said Angela, “but I didn’t know what else to do.”

Chelsea’s mom, Angela, said she begged police to find her daughter, but they refused to make a missing person’s report. Elizabeth McSheffrey / Global News

After her daughter left, Angela said she begged Halifax Regional Police to investigate and file a missing person’s report, but she kept hitting brick walls.

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“They kept repeating back to me, ‘There is nothing we can do until she’s willing to come forward. There is nothing we can do.’”

Global News sent multiple interview requests to Halifax Regional Police and the Nova Scotia RCMP about how they investigate human trafficking, but no one was made available.

“There was one point where I bugged them so much … they said to me, ‘I think it’s just best that you just accept that this is what your daughter is doing,’” Angela alleged.

“I told them that I will never, ever accept that. My daughter deserves better.”

Read more: Province investing $1.4M in initiatives to address human trafficking, sexual exploitation

That’s when she began “playing detective” — scouring the Internet for signs of her daughter and researching the people who were allegedly holding her captive.

“I would take my daughter’s photo and I would go to hotels and I would try to see if maybe somebody at the front desk would see her,” she said.

At one point, she added, she even considered spending her life’s savings on hiring a retrieval expert to bring Chelsea home.

“I don’t know at that time, for those months, how I functioned.”

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The conviction for Webber, pictured in 2019, was overturned earlier this year.

Chelsea was finally able to contact her mother after she was hospitalized because she wasn’t eating enough or getting proper health care. The pair orchestrated her escape a short time later.

The abuse is years behind her now, but Chelsea says the scars remain.

“I get flashbacks almost every day of things that have happened to me or situations that I find myself in, just in my everyday life, that remind me of what happened.

“I worry every day that I might run into [Pellow or Webber] or one of their family members or someone associated with them.”
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‘I needed to save myself’

Standing trial was difficult for Chelsea. She said she had little support in the courtroom because her mother, a witness, wasn’t allowed to be with her when she testified.

At times, she was described as a prostitute and sex worker — terms that implied consent, and outraged her mother in particular.

“It’s really hard to go through something like that without having any support by your family,” Chelsea said.

Read more: Indigenous lawyer appointed to prosecute human trafficking cases in Nova Scotia

Raising her voice in court also bore consequences in her community, where she says people called her a “snitch” and a “rat,” and told her she was breaking up families by testifying.

“It’s really hard to live with that thought, because I do feel bad for their family,” she said, “but I needed to save myself.”

Chelsea says that’s a work in progress. While she lives with trauma, fear of retaliation from her traffickers, and anxiety about what’s to come, she’s planning for a very bright future.

Chelsea says she refuses to let what happened to her define her. Elizabeth McSheffrey / Global News

Now in her early 20s, she’s been accepted into nursing school with the goal of eventually helping others who have survived similar abuse.

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“I think my experience with it in my life will really help me with that, because I’ll be able to understand on a different level what they’re going through and give them the support that I wish I would have had when that was happening to me.”

As the family steels themselves for a second trial, Angela said the strength and resilience her daughter has shown is “amazing.”

“I’m very proud of her. I know it takes so much courage to come forward,” she said.

“She knew out of fear that if she didn’t come forward, there might be somebody else … and it hurts my heart to know that she has to relive it all over again.”

Together, they’re calling for greater support for sexual violence survivors, additional training for the lawyers who cross-examine them, and the elimination of terms like “sex work” in courtrooms where human trafficking survivors have the courage to speak up.

Survivors of sexual violence in Nova Scotia can contact the Sexual Assault and Harassment Phone Line at (902) 425-1066 for one-on-one support, 24/7. The phone line is operated by the Dalhousie Student Union. If you believe someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, a list of phone numbers to call and steps to follow is available on the Halifax Regional Police website. Anyone in immediate danger is urged to call 911.

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