Looking out from a church, Taanis Bellerose quietly watches as people pass by, a practice she once spent entire days doing. Her eyes fall to a particular corner she used to work, and she thinks to herself, “It took me 30 years to go 25 feet.”
Selling herself on the streets for most of her life, Bellerose did what she thought she needed to survive. She learned the best spots to stroll, the most profitable hours to go out, which clients to look for and which ones to avoid. By the time she built up a routine, she could tell if a date was happening just at the sight of a car turning into a corner.
But her life took her down a road she struggled to walk away from. Eventually working the streets for drugs, her days cycled through overdosing and chasing the next high. In her own words, Bellerose had become “the lowest of the low.”
It’s a stark contrast to where she is today. At 49, sober for almost seven years, Bellerose has found “another chance to live,” walking down a different path of faith and purpose.
Bellerose says her view of love was distorted from a young age. She was born to Cree First Nations parents who were both alcoholics and addicts. As young children, Bellerose and her three sisters were found at an abandoned house and were later separated. While her sisters were sent to families in the States, Bellerose was adopted by a woman living in Calgary.
As part of the adoption agreement, Bellerose would grow up knowing her biological relatives. Every year she looked forward to visiting the reserve where her aunties would spoil her and give her attention. Between the ages of four to seven though, Bellerose experienced sexual abuse from male family members.
“I knew I didn't want to do it, but they were making me do it,” Bellerose says. “The only reason that I knew it was wrong was because they'd take me downstairs into the basement as soon as everybody would leave.”
When Bellerose told her adopted sister about what happened, she replied, “That’s normal. That’s love.”
More family complications arose when Bellerose discovered that her Uncle Johny, who had become a prominent male figure in her life, was actually her father. “I was seven years old and remember that was the day that it broke.
Everything shattered inside of me,” she says. “Anybody and everybody that I had thought cared for me had lied to me.”
What a girl wants
Bellerose’s adopted mother was a university professor and a respected activist amongst Indigenous communities. She often had friends over for parties, and by the time Bellerose was five, she knew how to make her mother gin and tonics. In between the busyness of their mother’s world, Bellerose and her sister got “lost in the shuffle.”
While she was away travelling or working, the children were usually left at home alone or with a nanny. Though Bellerose believes her adopted mother did the best she could, she passed on her own broken past from also growing up without a mother.
Bellerose’s adopted mother ran a strict and sheltered household. Hugging was rare, and instead of giving the children affection, she would buy them things. Bellerose says she often felt like she was a trophy child, and as hard as she tried, she could never live up to her expectations.
After finding out about her father, Bellerose didn’t know how to deal with the anger she felt. She began self-harming, punching walls until her fingers bled, stealing and getting kicked out of school until, and at the age of 10, she was sentenced to juvenile detention centre.
The detention centre had an adverse effect. A majority of the youth at were boys who gave Bellerose attention when her body matured at an early age. It was also the first time Bellerose had met street kids.
“They just liked me. It was this instant family, and I wanted that,” Bellerose says. “You start doing things you don't want to do or you know you shouldn't do because you want that family tie more.”
Bellerose also looked up to her adopted sister who was four years older. She would follow her to biker gangs and parties where she was introduced to whisky, then weed, then hallucinogenic mushshrooms.
“At the beginning I was terrified … but I wanted to be friends with these people more than I was scared, so I started doing it. At first it was a rebellion thing, but then it just came to be where it gives you a false feeling of happiness, of control, of power, and I just felt unstoppable.”
Groomed for the streets
From the age of 11, Bellerose was constantly running away from home. One night while she was walking around the neighbourhood, an older man offered her beer and took her on a drive away from the city. He schooled her on different sexual acts to perform, which later involved other men, and continued to pick Bellerose up until her cousin called the police.
The next time Bellerose ran away, she wound up in downtown Calgary where she became friends with a girl from a prominent drug family. Her mother would sell her on the streets and Bellerose says she even administered her daughter’s abortion on their kitchen table. The girl showed Bellerose that she could make money selling sex, and she wouldn’t have to submit to any man’s rules.
“The first guy had set the index down, and she just filled in the chapters,” says Bellerose. “I was drawn by the money and my own independency, because my mom had overseen me in such a structured way where you can't breathe.”“The first guy had set the index down, and she just filled in the chapters.” - Taanis Bellerose
The following night, Bellerose and her friend went to a hotel on Macleod Trail where they planned to coerce a man. They ended up running away with his wallet while he chased after them half-naked down the street in the middle of winter.
“It was such a rush, and it was free money, and now I could do whatever I want. I could go buy whatever,” Bellerose says. “And you know what? I never bought anything. None of that happened. It always went to drugs or alcohol or partying.”
The time came for Bellerose to do her first date. Women on the street had started going missing, so her friend gave her a knife to protect herself. But, her client could tell she was new and used the same knife to rape her.
Two months later, Bellerose found herself in another bad situation where she ended up being gang raped. Her adopted mother found out she was pregnant and told her it was her fault. That Christmas they went to Hawaii to have an abortion just before Bellerose’s 13th birthday.
Despite her experiences, Bellerose was not deterred from going back to the streets. “After that first time I got raped, boom, instant seven-year-old kid again. ‘I don't give a f*ck. I'll just do whatever I need to survive.’ Nothing was going to take me down. Nothing was going to stop me, and if it did, who cared?”
Bellerose’s survival instinct would aid her on the street. As she began people watching, she learned the areas the johns would frequent: The French Maid, Cecil Hotel, Victoria Park and King Edward Hotel, to name a few.
Two to 10 a.m. were her favourite times to work, but she also took advantage of less ideal conditions. “I would fearlessly be out in the rain. I would be the only one, so I knew I would get picked up. I would always go out at the times that nobody else would go.”
Still, Bellerose was wary of how some of the other women were treated, so she never had a pimp. The community of sex workers in Calgary was a small, tight-knit group. They would look out for one another and when someone went missing, they would be the first ones to know.
“I remember some of my girlfriends [who had pimps] being in tears, their feet hurting, their backs hurting, and they had a quota to finish or they couldn't go to sleep.”
Entrenched in a cycle of addiction
When Bellerose overdosed from her first high, she was addicted. But life on the streets caused her usage to spiral.
Any time Bellerose went out to work, she would get high to detach herself from what she was about to do. She took “everything and anything,” overdosing so frequently she would routinely go to an apartment where someone could see her on the security camera and ensure she didn’t die.
"You take yourself out of your body, and as soon as you're done, you're feeding yourself everything. That's why I OD'd all the time. I was just trying to be able to focus on something else.”
Bellerose briefly moved to Vancouver where she went to a treatment centre, but it only worsened her situation. Once she got out she was back to working the streets in downtown Vancouver where she got hooked on smoking heroin.
Three years later she returned to Calgary and met a boyfriend who would supposedly change everything. They started a family together, bought a house with a white picket fence and worked steady jobs. Bellerose realized she finally had everything she thought she wanted. For a moment she was happy, but it didn’t last. She still didn’t feel fulfilled.
As she fell back into going out and getting into trouble, her boyfriend took off with their three children, which dug Bellerose into an even deeper hole.
Bellerose was adopted into a drug-dealing biker gang in Victoria Park. It was then that she began doing cocaine and found she could make money from selling drugs instead of sex. While she worked the bar scene, she took cocaine as well to help her stay awake and sell more.
However, even when she was making enough money, she was still selling herself on the street.
“It was just a routine structure that I had done. It was a sick love. You didn't want it, but you wanted it.”
For a few minutes of sex, Bellerose would have someone to talk to and party with afterwards. It gave her a sense of intimacy and relationship.
“You would have the johns tell you you're beautiful, and you know it's sh*t but you need to hear it because you don't hear it from anybody else. And for some reason, you need a man's validation to feel like you are. Just like the drugs, you know it's not good but you do it anyways.”
“It was just a routine structure that I had done. It was a sick love. You didn't want it, but you wanted it.” - Taanis BelleroseThrough the years, Bellerose’s addiction intensified. Going out on the streets became a mission field for buying drugs. She went from walking out on clients who misspoke to doing a date for $20, and if she was desperate, just five bucks.
“On the street I remember cars going by, and I remember thinking, ‘This is my life,’” she says. “I’d feel like I'm on one of those treadmills, and I'd always see people who were in their cars. They have purpose. They're going somewhere. They have people ... and I'm going to die out here.”
At three points in her life, Bellerose was told she wouldn’t be able to walk again.
The first time was when she was got caught in a fight and thrown out of a two-storey building. She was taken to the hospital where they treated her for three collapsed discs in her spine. Because her drug tolerance had grown so high, the painkillers they sent her home with had little effect. That was when Bellerose’s friend showed her how to inject drugs intravenously.
The second time happened while there was a high alert for women going missing on the street. Bellerose went to check on her friend who was on a date, but as she was crossing the street, her friend’s date hit her with his truck. Over the next three years, she worked the streets on crutches.
When Bellerose was charged again for drug trafficking, she was sent to Edmonton for treatment. For six months she was clean, but she soon defaulted.
“One day I realized that everything was really good, and it freaked me right out, so I sabotaged, and I ended up back out.”
When she needed to take a break from the street, Bellerose went through detox at the George Spady Centre in Edmonton and learned to finally to forgive her family. Shortly after, when her adopted mother and sister passed away, she began thinking there must be a reason she was still alive.
But she fell out of treatment once again, and for the third and final time she almost ended her ability to walk.
Sitting in her apartment on Christmas Day, Bellerose was excited to resume her previous lifestyle with a community she once had.
“I had these thoughts of going back to old school where we were a family, and then I realized there's nobody I can share it with.”
When the reality of what her life had come to hit her, she injected drugs through her legs because the rest of her body had become too calloused. She swelled so badly from the knees down, the doctors thought they would have to amputate both legs.
With her health failing and a warrant for drug trafficking hanging over her head, Bellerose decided to go to Wellspring, a Hope Mission addiction recovery program for women in Edmonton.
Bellerose knew the system well enough to use it. Her plan was to go to treatment for a year to avoid jail time and go back to the streets after.
“I didn't want to get sober but in order to let nobody know what my plan was, I had to follow and do everything everybody was telling me so I didn't go to the pen.”
Since the program was Christian-based, she and the other women would do a Bible study every morning, which Bellerose saw as “unfair punishment.”
For the first few weeks, she argued why God wasn’t real until finally she thought, “Taanis, you have to be here for a year, so why don't you start asking questions to show that God's here?”
“So I went out one day and I said, 'You know what, God, if you're here, and you're all powerful, take this obsession and craving away,' because that was always what took me back.”
As she suspected, nothing happened. But two weeks later, she realized she hadn’t thought about drugs or alcohol since that day.
“I was like, 'Look at you, you did it!' And then I hear this voice say, 'No you didn't. You asked me. I did that.' And I couldn't stop seeing signs everywhere,” Bellerose says.
Paying it forward
Bellerose’s recovery was further solidified when she attended the Women’s Journey, a three-day event for women coming off the streets to be in a community of support.
“There was such a presence in this house. You could just feel it. I had the best sleep I ever had in 25 years, and I’m like, ‘I need to come back. Whatever's happening here, I just want more of it.’”
By the fourth time she went to the Women’s Journey, Bellerose was invited to be a team member. Later, she was asked to work at Hope Mission and Cocaine Anonymous, became a liaison at the George Spady Centre and accompanied the Salvation Army’s outreach van for women on the streets.
Every service Bellerose received, she was giving back. People that used to help her while she was in treatment were now her peers and her friends.
“When I started being able to be of purpose and give back and people were inviting me into things, it made me feel like I was worthy, like I was worth something,” Bellerose says. “At first all I wanted to do was be seen, but now I'm loved. There's more.”
“The grace and beauty of my experience is I get to share it with others and possibly hopefully show somebody without hope that it's possible to change and have a different life.”
No turning back
In the past few years Bellerose has gone on to share her story across the country and the world. She has been a featured speaker at conferences against human trafficking, she is involved with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women initiatives and has also spoken at “John School”, a post-court program for sex trade buyers.
She is now working with others with the goal of setting up women’s safe houses throughout Canada. “Sometimes women just need to feel loved and purpose and community, and sometimes they can't do that in their own community. But the thing is if you do bring them to a different place, you also need to give them the tools ... because if you just send them back into the same environment, it's so easy to get right back where you started.”
Bellerose now lives in Edmonton where she has reconnected with a few of her family and has a relationship with her grandchildren. When she drives back to Calgary for visits, she still recalls the memories of where she worked, but it doesn’t hurt anymore.
“It’s like I’m on this tidal wave and untouchable but without dope, without doing all the things that I had to do before. I feel like I have choices now. I not only have hope but I have an abundant mass amount of faith now.”
- By Andrea Wong