‘I want them to be safe’: Tina Fontaine’s aunt asks Winnipeg Centre candidates how they’ll help at-risk youth

By | October 10, 2019

The great-aunt and caretaker of Tina Fontaine wants people heading to the polls this month to consider voting for federal candidates committed to helping at-risk youth.

Thelma Favel said she hasn’t heard much from federal parties about what they intend to do to address service gaps that allow vulnerable youth, like her great-niece Fontaine, to fall through the cracks. Fontaine was 15 when she went missing and later was found dead in the Red River in 2014.

Young people need a 24/7 safe space in Winnipeg Centre — one of the poorest ridings in Canada — to ensure they have a refuge and bright future that Fontaine was denied, Favel said.

“One of them can grow up to be our prime minister, one of them can be a doctor, teacher, nurse, but they’re never ever given that chance,” Favel said, holding a photo of Fontaine as she sat at the kitchen table in her home in Powerview, about 130 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

“I want them to be safe all the time.”

No one has been convicted in Fontaine’s death and the circumstances surrounding how she died remain a mystery. 

Her death spurred calls for a national inquiring into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, which started two years after her death, took almost three years to complete and produced a 1,200-page report with 231 calls for justice.

Tina’s Safe Haven

A variety of social services failed the Sagkeeng First Nation teen, Favel said, and she doesn’t want the same fate to befall other youth.

Favel praises Tina’s Safe Haven, a drop-in that’s been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since last fall at Ndinawe on Selkirk Avenue in the Winnipeg North riding. It’s been full almost every night since then with at-risk young people age 13-24 taking up the 50 beds at the centre.

Tina’s Safe Haven, on Selkirk Avenue, is the only 24/7 drop-in centre for at risk teens in Winnipeg. The centre was named after Fontaine. (Jeff Stapleton CBC)

“It gives them safety. It gives them food. They’re able to shower there,” she said.

“They’re able to play games instead of being out on the streets.”

That round-the-clock model needs to be replicated in the inner-city, West End and surrounding areas, Favel said.

CBC News asked five candidates in Winnipeg Centre about their views on issues facing at-risk youth, and whether they would commit to securing funds for a 24/7 drop-in.

People’s Party of Canada candidate Yogi Henderson did not provide a statement or interview after two requests.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Liberal)

Liberal candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette is running for re-election in Winnipeg Centre this Oct. 21. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Tina’s Safe Haven is able to stay open 24/7 due to $350,000 in funding from the Trudeau government, along with $250,000 annual operating funding to keep it open, announced in the fall of 2018.

Winnipeg Centre Liberal candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette touted that action as a sign his party can be trusted to come through and make a 24/7 drop-in a reality in his riding if re-elected.

The municipal and provincial governments would normally be on the hook for funding something like Tina’s Safe Haven, Ouellette said, but the federal government bypassed them because it saw an urgent need.

“We know that this is a huge problem,” Ouellette said. “We know that there are not enough resources on the ground.”

Favel said one of the scariest threats facing youth on the streets is potential encounters with people trying to exploit and lure them into the sex trade, something police say Fontaine came into contact with before she died. Her mother was also in CFS care and sexually exploited.

Ouellette pointed to his roles as chair of the human trafficking caucus in Ottawa, and in the creation of a 24/7 national hotline to connect at-risk young people with services, as proof he is invested in making life safer for Winnipeg Centre youth.

The Liberals announced in August a commitment of tens of millions of dollars to combat human trafficking over the next five years, though that’s contingent on whether Canadians give them a second term.

“This is actual investment where you can actually get stuff done when you’re in government,” Ouellette said.

Leah Gazan (NDP)

Leah Gazan is the NDP candidate for Winnipeg Centre. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

NDP candidate Leah Gazan said the Liberal government had four years to deliver a 24/7 space in the riding. She questioned why voters should have faith that another Trudeau-led government would make good on Ouellette’s pledge.

The Spence Neighbourhood Association in Winnipeg Centre ran out of funds to keep its space open 24/7 last year. Currently it is open from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. during the summer and overnight on Fridays and Saturdays during the school year.

“This is certainly a top priority for me, to open up more front-line services for the local community,” said Gazan.

“We have organizations that actually have solutions to these issues but lack the proper resources.”

She said the NDP recognizes how pressing the need is, which is why the party recently promised $100 million over five years for after-school, sport and drop-in programming for youth Canada-wide as a way of keeping them out of gang life.

“I think with the death of Tina Fontaine, it was a glaring reminder of how we have kids who fall through the cracks because they’re not provided with adequate supports,” Gazan said.

“You honour [Fontaine’s] memory by funding supports to ensure nobody has to go through that again.”

Ryan Dyck (Conservatives)

Ryan Dyck is running for the Conservatives in Winnipeg Centre. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Conservative candidate Ryan Dyck said if elected, he would press Parliament for funds for a 24/7 safe space. 

Such spaces are “extremely useful” for addressing some of the broad social challenges in Winnipeg Centre, especially amid a meth crisis that continues to grip the city, he said.

“Anybody who represents Winnipeg Centre needs to be a powerful local advocate, because our community is ground zero for so many social challenges,” said Dyck, citing addiction, mental health, housing and homelessness as issues in his neighbourhood. 

The fact that Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman recently echoed calls from local organizations for 24/7 safe spaces shows the message is resonating across the community, Dyck said.

“Distressed youth, people dealing with addictions, they don’t run on nine-to-five schedules.”

Places like soup kitchen Agape Table, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM) and Addictions Foundation of Manitoba already know how to solve what ails Winnipeg Centre, Dyck said. 

What’s lacking, he said, is a “hub approach” that brings community groups more closely together to find joint solutions to common problems.

“It’s not so much as finding the answers yourself; it’s about building the framework, putting the right people in the right spots and facilitating the right communication and co-ordination,” Dyck said. 

Andrea Shalay (Greens)

Andrea Shalay is the Green Party of Canada candidate for Winnipeg Centre. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Green Party of Canada candidate Andrea Shalay sees the same need as Favel. 

She said it’s important to note how poverty, the legacy of colonialism and intergenerational trauma suffered by Indigenous communities are at the root of what’s facing many kids in Winnipeg Centre.

She doesn’t view the Liberal government’s move to sidestep local governments to fund Tina’s Safe Haven as a strength.

“That is actually, I think, a weakness,” she said. 

“The deeper question is why was not the federal government able to work with the other levels of government? What sort of relationships need to be healed there? What sorts of levels of trust need to be re-established?” Shalay asked.

She echoed other candidates in recognizing there already are community organizations on the ground in Winnipeg Centre that have what it takes to manage a 24/7 space for youth. Those groups just need support, she said.

“It’s not just about looking after the vulnerable youth once once they’re there; it’s about trying to prevent youth from being in that position in the first place,” Shalay said.

“We should not be having vulnerable youth in Canada, we should not be having children living in poverty in Canada, and so we really need to, as a nation, [address] why that is.”

‘Nothing like that open for Tina’

Tina Fontaine was wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down with rocks when she was found dead in the Red River in 2014. Her death remains unsolved. (Tina Fontaine/Facebook)

The four candidates differ slightly in how they articulate the problems facing at-risk youth in Winnipeg Centre, but they all support bringing a safe, secure, 24/7 space to the riding. 

Thelma Favel does too, and she plans to keep an eye on the person elected Oct. 21 to see the MP follows through.

“There was nothing like that open for Tina. She went to some places, and she was always turned away,” Favel said. 

“I don’t want another child to die like the way Tina did.” 

Tune in to CBC Information Radio Thursday morning from 6 to 8:30 a.m. CT as host Marcy Markusa and voters grill Winnipeg Centre candidates live from Tim Hortons on Maryland Street.