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Breaking the cycle

Manitoba launches an innovative strategy aimed at preventing sexual exploitation

From Uptown Magazine
December 18, 2008
Marlo Campbell

Tracia Owen was only 14 years old when she hanged herself in an abandoned Victor Street garage, ending a life filled with turmoil, drug use and sexual exploitation. Now, three years after her tragic death, a strategy named in her honour aims to protect other youth from suffering a similar fate.

Tracia's Trust is the second phase of a sexual exploitation strategy launched by the Province of Manitoba in 2002. The $2.4 million initiative has 26 separate components and is expected to be fully operational in two years.

The strategy's centrepiece is StreetReach - a $410,000 plan to better coordinate the efforts of the Winnipeg Police Service, Child and Family Services, and other local support agencies. Six new street outreach workers will also be hired to actively seek out youth who are at risk of exploitation and connect them to organizations that can help, as well as identify predators, and locations in which prostitution and drug use take place.

Tracia's Trust also includes the creation of a safe, rural healing lodge; a program for child-care centres to help staff identify exploitation and deter would-be offenders from targeting such places; and funding for programs offering specialized mentorship and support to vulnerable populations such as runaways, Aboriginal youth coming to Winnipeg from remote northern reserves and young men who are being sexually exploited.

Not all of these programs are new. In April 2007, Uptown reported on a first-in-Canada pilot project offered by Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre in partnership with Red River College. Adults who had survived sexual exploitation as teenagers were enrolled in a condensed version of Red River's Child and Youth Care training program, in recognition that they are ideally suited to work with kids who are still trapped in cycles of addiction, abuse or exploitation. Thanks to Tracia's Trust, this program will continue to be offered.

Public awareness is another key piece of the overall strategy. In 2006, the province launched the Stop Sex with Kids campaign. Facilitated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, this campaign continues with a new series of billboards and transit ads, and a website,, that provides resources and debunks myths.

"We have to make the public aware that this is a big problem and that this is, in fact, child abuse," says Christy Dzikowicz, the centre's director.

That sentiment is shared by Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba's minister of family services and housing.

"We used to call them johns but, more accurately, they are predators and child abusers," he says. "We have to, as a society, denounce these activities. You know, they drive into our neighbourhoods and destroy not only our youth but our sense of neighbourhood, and for one moment's pathetic, pitiful gratification, undo so much young human potential."

Approximately 400 children and youth are sexually exploited on Winnipeg's streets each year. That number only includes those caught up in the city's visible sex trade, however. Given that 80% of child sexual exploitation is hidden from public view in gang houses or 'trick pads,' the actual number of victims is likely much higher.

Tracia's Trust was developed with input from a coalition formed last summer after 17-year-old Fonessa Bruyere's body was discovered in a remote field west of McPhillips Street. Made up of about 30 representatives from organizations serving youth and Aboriginal families, the coalition is co-chaired by Gloria Enns, program manager at Sage House, a resource centre for street-involved women and transgendered individuals.

"We pulled together a list of where the gaps were, which is huge, and what needed to happen, and sent that off to the government," Enns says. "We've been lobbying them all along, meeting every month, trying to figure out new ways to get their attention."

During this same time, a provincial inquest into Tracia's 2005 suicide was being held, ordered by Manitoba's chief medical examiner to highlight the social factors that contributed to her death in the hope of preventing others. In a scathing final report released this past January, provincial judge John Guy recommended the province hold a summit with front-line workers to set priorities and brainstorm solutions. That summit took place in March, and Enns says many suggestions from that meeting were included in the final strategy.

Innovative and well-rounded, Tracia's Trust cements Manitoba's reputation as a North American leader in the fight against sexual exploitation.

"It's very progressive," Enns says. "I think this has the potential to be life-saving, so that's what counts. These are services that weren't in place to save Tracia or Fonessa, and might have, had they been in place."