The second week of March is Stop Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week in Manitoba, declared by the government back in 2008.
Since then, a national inquiry into into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada was launched following the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine.
Raymond Cormier, the man accused of killing Fontaine, was acquitted of second-degree murder charges last month.
Fontaine’s body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg in August of 2014.
The Cormier trial heard from several witnesses who talked about the 15-year-old being exploited leading up to her death.
Dr. Andrea Wilkie Gilmore, who treated Fontaine the day she went missing, said she was concerned for Fontaine’s well-being.
Witnesses in the trial testified they saw Cormier and Fontaine together in the days before she disappeared.
There was no DNA or forensic evidence linking Cormier to Fontaine, but in a series of audio recordings made by police, Cormier spoke about having sex with Fontaine, who was a minor.
After his acquittal on Feb. 22, Fontaine’s family said they would like to see other charges laid against Cormier.
Fontaine’s story, one of many
The majority of children, youth and adults victimized by sexual exploitation and sex trafficking are girls and women, according to the Manitoba government, although there is a growing awareness about the sexual exploitation of boys and transgender youth.
Statistics show about 400 children and youth are exploited on the streets of Winnipeg each year. Majority are Indigenous and have a family history that involves residential schools and/or the child welfare system.
Winnipeg police are well aware of the link between exploited children and the child welfare system.
“We know somewhere between 87 and 89 percent of our kids that are reported missing nowadays are the ones that… have a high chance of being sexually exploited, are all kids in care, so that’s a huge issue to us,” Insp. Kelly Dennison from the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) said.
The WPS has laid out a new reporting process for children in care, hoping their partners will play a bigger role, Dennison said.
“The way in which we’re asking group homes to report children that go missing from care is a little bit different,” Dennison explained.
“We’ve really reached out recently to all of the agencies and authorities to try and get them to try and help the Winnipeg Police Service out a little bit more when we’re dealing with kids in care that are go missing and are at a high risk to be exploited.”
There are currently more than 10,700 children in care in Manitoba. Of those, 89 percent are Indigenous.
Back in 2002, the Manitoba Strategy “Responding to Children and Youth at Risk of, or Survivors of, Sexual Exploitation” was launched.
On Aug. 24, 2005, 14-year-old Tracia Owen died by suicide while in the care of a child and family services agency.
Owen had endured 65 placements, 17 of those were back home to her family. According to a report from Manitoba Courts, Owen was involved in drugs and the sex trade.
In 2006, the Provincial Chief Medical Examiner called an inquest into Owen’s death.
Phase two of the Manitoba Strategy, named Tracia’s Trust, was launched in 2008. The goals of phase two include implementing more prevention initiatives, developing more services for victims, increasing public awareness and making offenders more accountable.
Funding for Tracia’s Trust is about $10 million each year. It’s distributed by the government to non-governmental organizations so they can provide shelters, mentorship, day programming, partnerships with addictions, and other services for victims.
Stop Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week in Manitoba
Manitoba’s “Stop Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week” was first declared in 2008 to promote awareness about the sexual exploitation of children.
The Manitoba government acknowledges child sexual exploitation as the act of coercing a child under the age of 18 into a sexual act without the child’s consent in exchange for money, drugs, shelter, food, protection or other basic necessities.
The government supports training and outreach programs which allow some organizations to go out in the community, speak with victims and point them in the direction of resources.
Survivors of sexual exploitation have said more still needs to be done, including hiring people with lived experience.
“It’s going back to those with lived experience, if you get them at the forefront of this issue and get them to start doing outreach to those populations… they can change those people’s lives,” Alaya McIvor, a survivor of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, said.
McIvor advocates for people who are at risk of being exploited or trafficked and helps organize the memorial march for missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW).
The MMIW inquiry is currently requesting a two-year extension of its mandate to hear from more people and further explore issues around human trafficking and addictions.
The national inquiry has heard from more than 700 witnesses but reports there are more than 600 people who wish to share their experiences as well.
The request is being reviewed by Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett. If approved, it will give the commissioners until Dec. 31, 2020, to finish their work.
Stop Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week runs all week in Manitoba.
Global News will be sharing stories from survivors of sexual exploitation to raise awareness in a four part series.
Need immediate help? Call 9-1-1
If you are a young person struggling with a problem big or small, please call Kids Help Phone anytime at 1-800-668-6868. You can also text “connect” to 686868 to work with a crisis responder that can help with any issues in Manitoba.
Contact the Canadian Centre for Child Protection for help finding the proper support services in your area.
If you think a child is being harmed or neglected, contact CFS at 1-866-345-9241.