Dozens gathered on Saturday morning at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax for a frank and difficult discussion concerning the realities of sex trafficking in Canada. Featuring a panel which included survivors of sexual exploitation as well as their families, it was an opportunity to learn and highlight a serious and often overlooked issue in Nova Scotia.

“They gang-raped her, they burned her with cigarettes, and then they lit her hair on fire,” recounts Shauna Davidson, who still gets emotional when speaking about her cousin Madison Fraser, who was lured from Nova Scotia to Alberta and sold into sex work.

In 2015, Fraser died in a car accident with a man believed to be a client – but Davidson isn’t letting her story fade from memory.

“She was tough, and she was strong,” says Davidson. “I think she'd be proud.”

Victor Malarek, a veteran journalist and author, was also present on the panel. After years of intensive reporting on this issue, he says Halifax has one of the highest rates of reported human trafficking in the country.  

“Unless you're going to these places, unless you're part of that world, that brotherhood of johns, you may not know your entire life that this situation exists in Halifax,” says Malarek.

And it's happening nationwide – which Caroline Pugh-Roberts can attest to after a previous boyfriend pressured her to work in strip clubs in Ontario.

“We have quotas. If you don't make them, you now have to go outside the bar to make that money,” says Pugh-Roberts. “When I said I didn't want to do it anymore, he broke my toes so I couldn't leave. He took all the doors off the inside of the house, and that's when he started bringing the men home.”

Pugh-Roberts now works with people coming out of the sex trafficking world and hopes to lead by example.

“I’m living proof that not only can you exit and manage – but you can thrive,” says Pugh-Roberts. “I want to share that, and I hope that for others.

Despite the painful stories shared at the discussion, the several speakers hope the knowledge shared will help to inspire action and create change – beginning with organizers issuing letters to Halifax police Chief Dan Kinsella.

“There has to be somebody out there, some lawmaker, somebody who will start to look at this seriously because it's a rampant problem,” says Davidson. “It's awful – it's heinous.”

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada has found Nova Scotia has the highest rate of reported instances of human trafficking – with the 90 percent of its victims being women – most of them under the age of 25.

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Emily Baron Cadloff