Winnipegger speaks about life on streets, alleged assault by convicted killer Shawn Lamb
Q&A: Lauren Chopek says systems repeatedly failed her, other people's judgment kept her from trusting
Lauren Chopek, 21, was a runaway when she found herself in the apartment of convicted killer Shawn Lamb at age 14. When she brought up sexual assault charges against Lamb, they were dropped as part of a deal to secure guilty pleas in the murders of Carolyn Sinclair, 25, and Lorna Blacksmith, 18, according to court officials. That plea deal, she says, was another blow to her self-worth.
With recent not-guilty outcomes for those accused in the deaths of Colten Bushie and Tina Fontaine, Chopek says she sees herself in Tina and knows she could have met a similar fate. She blames a system that she says didn't help her despite reaching out for it.
Chopek recently spoke with Information Radio's Marcy Markusa. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Marcy Markusa: So what are the similarities when you look and think about Tina Fontaine's story? When you were 14, 'cause you're 21 now, right?
Lauren Chopek: The age stands out to me. We're both clearly in the need of help, and lost, searching for something. We were both being taken advantage of. Both being judged on our actions. Meanwhile, we're just children and we're just trying to survive and cope in the way that we know how.
You yourself, when you were around Tina's age, were a chronic runaway. Were you running from something, to something? Do you remember at that time what was going through your mind as you were going through this?
There's kids that run away from good homes and I was kind of one of them. I had a good, supportive, healthy mother at the time. But I had personal issues that I needed to deal with. Feeling abandoned by my father and also being sexually assaulted at a younger age as a child, and even in high school. And I just really, at some point, I lost my self-worth. I continued to run away so I could try to escape those feelings that were inside of me.
What were your feelings over the course of the [Raymond Cormier] trial and then hearing the verdict?
When the verdict came out, I was really hurt. And shocked, but also not really shocked, because I've had experiences of injustices when I've went to the police, the people that are supposed to protect us. I was looked down on and my words weren't listened to. And I feel like it's because I was an Aboriginal youth that for some reason people just did not care about what happened to me. For some reason, they couldn't just look past whatever judgments they had and that's all I see with Tina.
Before the verdict came out, they brought up how there was drugs and alcohol in her system. That should not matter. She was a child. And no matter if she was running away all the time, or using drugs, she was still a child that was broken and needed help.
We need adults that we can trust. Adults that won't judge us and call us little brats or bad kids. Because we aren't.- Lauren Chopek
It reminded me of Shawn Lamb. I met him and I charged him for sexual assault, but meanwhile, when he was on trial for murdering those young women, I had to meet with my lawyer or his lawyer … I had to drop my sexual assault charges so Shawn Lamb could agree to pleading guilty.
They already knew. And it just blows my mind that someone's life can just be written off as nothing. No matter what they're doing. I've been sitting around the last couple years not doing very much for my community but these recent trials have really woken me up.
You're referring to Colten Bushie and to Tina Fontaine.
There just needs to be a bright light for our youth, 'cause we're always represented as [either] criminals or victims. And I'm honoured that I get to speak with you and that you're asking me what I think that we need. But I'm hurting. We are hurting as people and we're scared and we need to grieve. And we don't have all the answers.
We've continued to tell people that all we need is love. We continue to cry and share our stories and our tears and beg for what we need. But I don't see, you know, those police officers that didn't do the proper steps for whatever reason, why aren't you asking them what needs to change? Because I can't. I want to make change but I don't have the power, I don't have the control to make those decisions.
How at risk is someone like you, like Tina, on the streets of Winnipeg? How quickly are people and predators there, ready to take advantage?
In the six weeks Tina was in Winnipeg, she came in contact with police officers, with hospital staff, with Child and Family Services. She wouldn't talk to a doctor who examined her. She ran away from CFS several times. It sounds like she didn't trust those systems that were supposed to help her. From your experience, how could the people who work in those systems do better to build that trust?
For an example, when I finally got the self-worth and realized the things that were happening to me, like what they were and I that was being exploited, I got the strength to finally tell people what happened. I went to a detective and I got comfortable with him, and I tried to tell him numerous situations where I was abused.
Genuine child and youth care workers, that is what saved my life.- Lauren Chopek
The woman in the back who was typing everything up, he went and asked her if it was "okay if she shares another story?" He left the door open and I could hear her. She said, "What, did she make another deal?" I was a 15-year-old girl, sitting there, crying, explaining in detail what these men did to me. And it was somehow still my fault. And that's why people don't trust. When the media says Tina was off partying with this old man, that's why we don't trust.
What should we say instead of saying that Tina or another girl was off partying?
Maybe put the focus on those older men that were partying with her. They're the adults. The responsibility shouldn't be put on her.
You feel there should be a space where youth can go and workers won't call CFS or parents, a place where you can go and be safe without judgment or interference. What might that look like?
Somewhere that's open 24-7 with beds, foods, just friendly people. Maybe people that have the experience so they understand why kids might keep going back to that lifestyle. Why they make the choices that they do.
Can you shed any light on that?
There's these four needs that every individual seeks out, even without knowing it. The sense of identity, sense of purpose, sense of empowerment and belonging. You can find those in negative things. For me, being on the street, that filled lots of those things. I belonged. Men wanted me, for the wrong reasons, but it was something.
I'm just honoured to share my voice and use it, but it is super exhausting and it does take a toll on me to cry in front of you, in front of cameras.- Lauren Chopek
We feel wanted and special. As sh***y as it sounds. I was somehow pleasing people. I'm being really raw and honest and I hope that I can really trust you with my words, but my identity, you know, as sad as it was to be a person on the street, at least that's who I was and I belonged to those people.
What scares you about saying that in such an honest way?
Just because I know that people won't understand.
Do you think you're going to be dismissed?
I know I will be by people, but I know that there's also people that will understand and that's who this message is for. And I just want people to no longer blame themselves because people don't do messed up things for no reason.
Those people who are going to be trustworthy and worth your trust, who look at yourself and think about Tina Fontaine and are in the community, thinking 'We want to save you and we want to help you and we want to reach you,' what help do you need?
I don't know. Everyone's different. What helped me might not help others, but simply, what I've asked others and all the answers that I've got from other youth is simply just … unconditional love. To believe in you. To have people in those systems, for them to be genuine. Like genuine child and youth care workers, that is what saved my life. Social workers that don't lie and try to pretend that they know what you're going through when they only see you once a month.
We need adults that we can trust. Adults that won't judge us and call us little brats or bad kids. Because we aren't.
Tell me a bit about your walks that you're organizing.
My Midnight Medicine walk is usually every September.
When you walk, who are you walking for?
Well, it first started as my experience being a sexually exploited youth and I knew as a youth, when I was out there was at night time. So I wanted to create a medicine walk that would be at midnight so that the girls and the young people can actually see us and we can reach out to them. And also for like the people that prey on our youth and they can see us too and know that people are trying to do something and we're not just going to sit around and watch them take our kids away. But it's grown over the years. A couple years ago over 100 people came.
What did that mean to you?
It just meant so much, to be able to take something from my negative experiences and to turn it into something beautiful.
What do you think when we all sit here and talk about systems and you keep coming back with talking about love?
I'm just honoured to share my voice and use it, but it is super exhausting and it does take a toll on me to cry in front of you, in front of cameras. I just hope that eventually someone will help me take my words into action.
I believe that you are a genuine person that everyone that's interviewed me is a genuine person, but I know the media sometimes just likes the sadness, the tragedy, probably gets lots of ratings from hearing us cry all the time. But I have faith that people are trying to spread our stories for the good.
I hope one day you're in and we're talking about a safe Winnipeg.
With files from Marcy Markusa and Information Radio