Mi’kmaq women’s centre: A safe haven in Sydney’s ugly underbelly

Some in the sex trade. Some homeless. Many struggling with drug addictions.

(Heidi Marshall, left, and Raylene Sacobie, middle, smudge at the women’s resource centre in Sydney, N.S.)

Trina Roache
APTN National News
A Mi’kmaq resource centre that helps Indigenous women at risk in Sydney, N.S., is at risk itself without more stable funding.

This centre opened its doors a year ago and about 20 to 30 women go there on a regular basis to get clean needles, or donated food and clothes – some in the sex trade. Some homeless. Many struggling with drug addictions.

But it’s been running on donations and volunteers like Heidi Marshall, of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association (NSNWA).

“Right now if I wasn’t here, the centre wouldn’t be here, I know that the centre wouldn’t be here 100 per cent,” said Marshall.

The president of NSNWA said they opened the centre because they knew it was needed, they just underestimated how much.

“It’s been a very difficult year. But … we’re still here. The girls are still here,” said Cheryl Maloney. “We opened our doors on volunteers and donations. We were pretty naïve when we opened the doors and signed the lease. We soon found out there’s issues around security. Mental health training (and) safety protocols.”

But no matter the challenge, keeping the doors open is a priority because the women they help face greater challenges.

“These girls are on the street,” said Maloney. “They need to be fed. They need to be loved.  They need to be respected. They need help.”

Cheryl Maloney speaking to a group of women.
Cheryl Maloney speaking to a group of women.

Maloney is working to secure funding because she’s concerned their shoestring budget of donations won’t last.

After all, this is about the Mi’kmaw women who keep walking through the centre’s doors.

Raylene Sacobie spent nearly half of her life addicted to opiates, the main drug of choice in the region.“You wake up and you feel horrible,” said Sacobie. “You feel like your skin’s inside out. My arms were full of bruises.”

A near miss with an air bubble in a needle when she was mainlining, was the wake-up call Sacobie needed.

The 35-year-old has been clean for a year. For the first time in a long time, she has a place to call home, landing an apartment in the nearby Mi’kmaw community of Membertou.Sacobie laughs and jokes now, but life hasn’t been easy.

“Grief tore me apart and then I chose to be numbed,” said Sacobie.

She became addicted to opiates after her mother died when Sacobie was 18 years old.

“That took a lot out of me,” she said. “When the last words you said to your mother were ‘I you hope you die.’”

Sacobie spent the years since haunted by guilt and remorse over the fight she’d had with mother in the days before she died.

“It took me 14 years to say, ‘Raylene, it’s not your fault,’” she said.

Of those years spent in the fog of addiction, Sacobie described an intense feeling of isolation.

“Alone. Unloved. Lost. Couldn’t trust nobody,” she said. “You fall in love so much with that addiction that you ignore everything in life, even the people that love you, you just throw them away.”

She’s found a connection at the centre.

The women there are open and honest, sharing painful details of their lives, hoping to shed light on a world that’s invisible to many. Hoping to break the cycle.

Jeannette Francis wants to pass on what she learned at the centre to other young women who are vulnerable.

“To help them go back to school and take them away from what’s out there,” said Francis. “There’s too many people. Drugs, drugs, drugs. And it’s sickening, right? And they’re targeting young girls and guys.”

Francis sees the ugly underbelly of life on the streets of Sydney and has threatened to report men who are paying for sex with underage girls. And though she talks about her own struggle with addiction without hesitation, describing a recent encounter with a young Mi’kmaw woman on the streets had Francis blinking back tears.

“To me, you just got off a child molester, that’s what I call the man that took you,” Francis recounted telling the young girl. “A child molester, because the girl is under 14 years old. And they only paid her 10 dollars.”

Heidi Marshall.
Heidi Marshall.

Heidi Marshall runs the programs at the centre, keeping the doors open from 3 p.m. to 8 p. m. daily.

“My role here is not to change anybody,” said Marshall. “It’s just to support them where they are with their lives right now.”

And she’s worked hard to build trust with the women who come through the doors.

“Our communities, we have forgotten about the women ourselves,” said Marshall. “They lost trust in us. As First Nation people. As people in our Mi’kmaw community who are supposed to keep them safe and help them. They’ve lost that trust.”Several events in the last two years proved eye-opening for Mi’kmaw communities that sparked the idea of the centre.

First, a young Mi’kmaw woman went missing in November of 2014. Chrisma Denny was later found safe in the United States and came home. But what alarmed Cheryl Maloney was that Denny had been missing for weeks before anyone noticed.

“She was in the [child welfare] system, she aged out. With the housing crisis in the community, you’re couch surfing, you can end up on the streets, you can end up living high risk lifestyles,” said Maloney. “If there’s no home for you to go to, nobody is going to know if you’re home or not.”

So, the centre has computers the women can use to get on social media.

“The best tracking for us is for them to be able to come here, check in and let everyone know where they’re at and that they’re okay,” said Maloney.

Another event that highlighted the problem happened last year when the Cape Breton Regional Police busted 27 men trying to buy sex in a prostitution sting in Sydney. But the real shock for Mi’kmaw communities was how many of their own women were working in the sex trade. In the spring of 2015, Toronto police made nine arrests in a human trafficking ring with ties to Nova Scotia, involving two Mi’kmaq girls.

“They were in the child welfare system and lured out of group homes,” said Maloney. “So there’s a connection; the over-representation of Mi’kmaq, Aboriginal kids in the child welfare system across the country is a risk factor. Homelessness. Poverty. They’re risk factors. Mental health and addictions are risk factors.”

RCMP Constable Jeff Shannon has spent much of his career working in Indigenous communities and has experience in particular with missing and murdered women in British Columbia.

“I’ve been in the North, B.C, right across this country and to be honest, the majority are uneducated and poor,” said Shannon, referring to women he sees on the streets. “They’ve already been through abuse. Somebody went in and stole a part of their spirit and soul.”

Shannon is now based in Eskasoni, the largest Mi’kmaw community on the East Coast, with a population of around 4,000 people. It’s around a 40-minute drive from Sydney of about 30,000 people. Shannon has identified around 54 women in Eskasoni he said are at high risk. That doesn’t mean these women are already in the sex trade, but he sees them as vulnerable and may be heading in that direction.

“The problem here,” said Shannon, “you don’t really get to hear of the real kind of serious things. Like, I got a black eye, who cares? These girls don’t care. What’s a black eye?”

Shannon said there’s a lack of awareness around the abuse women endure, even among police officers because the young women don’t report it.

“The thing is, the girls, they’re so abused,” said Shannon. “That for them to go and get a purse and a meal at McDonald’s from a guy and drive around in a fancy car is pretty huge.”

Shannon said the women’s definition of normal a “different line in the sand” than most people.

“Violence is their normal,” said Shannon. “So if he smacks you or punches or calls you names or degrades you? Well, you know, last week my family threw me out of the house on the front lawn and threw all my clothes over the front lawn. My father or uncle abused me for eight years and beat me and made me do awful things. So how terrible is that thing that he’s doing to you?”

Shannon is quick to point out that this isn’t just an Indigenous problem. But with the lines drawn between things like poverty to a high-risk lifestyle, the statistics in Mi’kmaw communities tell their own story.


According to the 2016 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia, 75 per cent of children in Eskasoni live in poverty.

“As people, we don’t like poor people, right? We got to look at that. That’s true,” said Heidi Marshall. “And the women come to Sydney and they try to access services and they’re faced with racism and discrimination.”

It’s a harsh reality that has Mi’kmaw communities stepping up, though finding solutions isn’t easy.

“What surprised me is that people wanted to help the girls … and they didn’t know how to. It’s really tough,” said Maloney. “So the centre provides an opportunity for the Mi’kmaq to surround with girls with the love, support and the safety that they need.”

The purpose of the resource centre isn’t to deal with larger systemic problems around racism or family violence or poverty or housing. What it does is provide a safe place. No one is pushing the girls into rehab. No one is trying to pull the women off the streets.

“Number One to me is non-judgmental services. Very important,” said Marshall.

The women might come hang out before they go to work on the streets. They might be in recovery and yet come in for clean needles.

“Don’t judge. Ever,” Marshall repeated. “This is the first time in their life where someone accepted them for who they are and, you know, their addiction or lifestyle doesn’t define who they are.”

The chiefs of the five Mi’kmaw communities in Cape Breton cover the rent for the centre in Sydney. Marshall found money to pay for the program she’s running over the next three months.

That covers resource materials. But the rest is donations and a lot of volunteerism.

“If we didn’t have partnerships and community buy-in this place wouldn’t exist,” said Marshall.

The centre chases down funding from a few pots like the Nova Scotia Status of Women’s Sexual Violence Strategy. Indigenous and Northern Affair’s Family Violence Prevention Program. Some money from Health Canada for mental health support. But it’s not enough.

“Definitely funding, it’s a huge issue here,” said Marshall. “I know that we can run that we can run, I don’t want to say the word, like, a half-assed program, based on just volunteers. But we need an outreach worker. I need to have a program coordinator. I need a mental health worker.”

With the announcement of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls comes the promise of action.But Maloney asks, why wait?

“Let the inquiry work at the systemic issues, let the inquiry work at doing long term healing for families,” said Maloney. “This centre and work like this is one of those things that need to happen now. If you really want make a difference than this is where the support needs to be. And it shouldn’t have to wait for an inquiry.”

There are other initiatives underway. The RCMP in Eskasoni are working with partners in the community to help women at risk.

Part of it is an ongoing police investigation.

“There’s guys out there that are paying girls in Eskasoni to bring younger girls out on the streets,” said Shannon.  “There’s guys that are tying the girls up for a day or two.  We’re slowly identifying these high risk Johns, I’ll call them. And that’s important for the community.”

Charlotte Street in Sydney, known locally as a place where Johns pick up sex trade workers 
Charlotte Street in Sydney, known locally as a place where Johns pick up sex trade workers

The other part is about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in case one of the women goes missing.

Shannon is involved in the We Care Project. The idea is to give the women iPods loaded with a Tim Hortons app. The women get free food, and a mental health crisis counselor can keep track of them when they check in using the iPod. Whether it will work, he can’t say.

“These girls are all going to fall. They’re going to stumble,” said Shannon.

He compares asking a drug addict to change their ways to making a smoker to quit smoking when they’re not ready. Only much worse.

“It’s a tremendous sickness,” said Shannon. “If you ever seen someone drying out on opiates, it’s disturbing. It’s like a hangover times 100.”

And when people do come out of treatment – a stint in rehab or jail – there’s not much waiting on the other side.

“We’re great for giving them food and clothing and everything when they’re on the pills,” said Shannon. “But what do we do when they finish rehab? We kick them out the door and guess what? Nothing in their pockets. No place to live. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. So guess what? When the old geezer pulls up and says ‘hey darling, $50 for a blow job,?’ It looks pretty easy.”

Shannon said what’s needed is an exit strategy.

“You put them in that apartment, access to a counselor. Get them a job. Keep them busy and give them goal and visitation to their kids and all of a sudden, things start to get better,” said Shannon.

The We Care project is still in its infancy, but there’s a plan to hold community dinners for the women to talk about healthy choices. There’s a lot of players pitching in, including the Eskasoni Crisis Centre, and Mi’kmaq Child and Family Services, Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselling Association.

Eskasoni band councilor Dion Denny said it’s a priority for chief and council. Denny himself, was a crisis counselor for six years. He plans to start a soup kitchen in the community in December as one way to help.

On a Monday evening at the resource centre in Sydney, eight women sat at their desks in a classroom they’ve set up in the basement of the building, working their way through a book called From Stilettos to Moccasins. On the board at the front of the room are lists of topics they want to cover. From date safety to resume writing.

There’s a sense of belonging and acceptance in this space.

Raylene Sacobie speaks up in the class, “This is the first time I’ve had a chance. This makes us feel special.”

Some of these women are optimistic about their own happy ending.

“I feel very proud of myself for being here,” said Sacobie, who started coming to the centre a few weeks ago. “I learned a lot.”

Sacobie hopes the program help her land a job. She doesn’t feel isolated anymore and wants to make her father proud.

“He may be seven hours away but we talk every single night,” said Sacobie. “I’m sober for me and my father. My father is my rock.”

She feels like she lost of a lot of her journey to addiction.

“They say you’re on a path your whole life,” said Sacobie. “Mine kind of broke off in so many bad places. But now I feel like its sewn together. Now I feel like I succeeded in my path where I wanted to go.”

Not everyone makes it. The women are planning a small ceremony to officially name the resource centre after Jane Paul, a Mi’kmaw woman who died last year from an overdose.

“Jane was one of the girls that was very instrumental in saying, you know we need a place,” said Maloney.

What happens at the centre is very much dictated by what they women feel they need in terms of services, support and programs. Maloney said Jane Paul was a big part of that and everyone wants to acknowledge her role as a pioneer in opening the centre’s doors.

“What Jane was doing, working with the Nova Scotia Native Women, was something her kids should be proud of,” said Maloney. “And we wanted them to know no matter where your mother was in life, she contributed something. And all of these girls here, they’re building this centre up. They’re doing important work. Not just for them but for other women, they’re making this successful.”

And in this case, success comes in small steps. Keeping track of the women who are vulnerable. Heidi Marshall hopes that the program helps a couple of them gets jobs. Helping a woman apply for a social security number for the first time. It’s not easy.

“I worry about one of the girls that is pregnant right now and she’s being forced into prostitution by her boyfriend,” said Marshall. “And she needs to … I don’t know, I’m just really worried about her.”

One of the goals is not just to raise the self-esteem for the women at risk, but to change how the community sees these women too.

“People need to know that they’re human beings,” said Marshall. “And that they deserve a chance. That they have goals. That they have hopes and dreams like everybody else.”

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