The organizer of a controversial fundraiser for a Winnipeg women's shelter is demanding an apology from Manitoba deputy premier Eric Robinson and a government advisor for remarks they made about the event.
Pamela Fox, owner of the Foxy Shoppe specialty clothing store, went public for the first time since controversy erupted over the comments by Robinson and Nahanni Fontaine about the pin-up themed event she held last year in support of Osborne House.
In a letter made public on Wednesday, Fox said she organized the fundraiser because Osborne House had changed her life following years of abuse.
"Domestic violence was all I had ever known from the last year of being a teenager and through the entirety of my adult life until I made the choice one day to seek help, to seek safety, and to begin the even harder journey than that of 'surviving' relentless mental, physical, sexual, and financial abuse to that of a survivor," Fox's letter states in part.
She also defended her efforts to raise money for the women's shelter, which has been dealing with funding shortfalls.
"What has been said in judgment behind our backs in emails between deputy premier Eric Robinson and his advisor Nahanni Fontaine — that we were never meant to see — will never convince me that trying to do good, so that Osborne House can continue to provide a safe haven from abuse and violence, could ever be wrong," she wrote.
A burlesque performer had participated in Fox's fundraiser, prompting criticism from Fontaine, the province's special advisor on women's issues.
In an internal email sent to Robinson and other civil servants, Fontaine called burlesque "a total disregard for women's and girls' dignity and sacredness" and said the fundraiser was "blatantly stupid."
Robinson, who is aboriginal, wrote in response: "On the surface it's not a very good idea and moreover exploits an already vulnerable group in society. It also further demonstrates the ignorance of do-good white people without giving it a second thought."
Comment 'abusive,' says Fox
Robinson has apologized for using the phrase "do-good white people," but he has maintained that his comment was not racist and he believes the Osborne House fundraiser and the burlesque performance were in poor taste.
But Fox, who describes herself as a woman of colour, said she believes Robinson's remark was racist and abusive.
"Somehow the colour of our skin has come in to question and because we are assumed to be 'white do gooders' we are somehow 'so stupid.' It is incredibly sad, to say the least, that these insulting and demeaning racist, abusive comments and judgments have been made," she wrote.
"It is obvious to anyone following this matter that as the organizer of the event, I am owed an apology by both Minister Robinson and Ms. Fontaine who spoke about me without verifying a single fact," she added.
"To be called stupid for trying to give of one's self as a human being to another, and to be called names and denigrated as women by our own government is very hurtful."
On Monday, Premier Greg Selinger said Robinson would retain his cabinet posts as deputy premier and minister of aboriginal and northern affairs.
Pamela Fox's statement
Below is the full text of Pamela Fox's letter:
Shelter applauds organizer's stance
The internal emails were obtained through Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) requests by Osborne House CEO Barbara Judt.
Judt has sent a letter to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission with her concerns. She is also demanding direct apologies from Robinson and Fontaine.
"I think what she has come forward and written is really terrific and courageous. She talked about her story and … why this was done," Judt said of Fox's letter.
"The community has been incredible in their support, and they will definitely applaud what she has done."
At the same time, Judt said she doubts the letter will mend what she said is a fractured relationship between Osborne House and the provincial government.
There appears to be an ongoing dispute between the provincial government and the management at Osborne House.
On Wednesday, Family Services Minister Jennifer Howard said concerns have been raised that some of the services being funded are not being provided in a way that they should be, and there have been unsafe conditions for shelter staff and clients.
"This is an issue of how an organization functions, and we've had both management and staff at Osborne House describe it as a toxic work environment," Howard said.
Judt said while she welcomes government oversight, including any audits or reviews, she believes the NDP government is trying to remove her and board members.
"We have been repeatedly asking government to sit down for a meeting and discuss the issues around the explanations we are given for funding shortages," Judt said.
Judt said Osborne House had undergone two "snap reviews" recently and she has asked for explanations, but "they don't respond to any of our letters."
"I believe we are being targeted because we don't accept the explanations that they give us," she said, adding that "our questions are not welcome."
Judt said when Robinson's comments surfaced, she thought Howard should have said something in defence of the staff at Osborne House and the people who organized the fundraiser.
"She's talked about respectful workplaces, yet she stood by silent while Robinson insulted all of us and made a horrific racist comment," said Judt.
Howard told CBC News the government has done some reviews of services and human resources issues at Osborne House and ordered more follow-up.
Officials are looking at some of the case management that is going on at the shelter to make sure the women and children who are staying there are getting the kind of services they need to rebuild their lives, the minister said.
"These are reviews that we would do in any situation where we have has concerns raised about the operations of an organization." said Howard.
"We want to make sure that everybody who works at Osborne House is able to do their job, is able to provide service in a safe way."
Judt said Osborne House is being run differently than it used to be, and she believes that has drawn the ire of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
"There is definite attention being paid to the bottom line," she said.
Judt said overtime costs have been reduced, they don't always fill shifts when demand for the shelter's services are low, and staff on sick leave are not always backfilled.
Judt said she believes those changes have not been sitting well with the union and it, in turn, complained to the minister.
As well, the government wants more culturally sensitive programming at Osborne House, said Judt, who argued that staff do provide some services for aboriginal clients and are trying to offer more activities.
At the same time, "this is a short-term service … it's an emergency shelter," Judt said.
Howard said the province is willing to work with the management of the agency.
"We want to do that in a co-operative way, but at the end of the day we want to make sure that the clients of Osborne House are getting excellent service," she said.
Howard said she believes "there is a path to improve services, to improve working conditions, so Osborne House can be an excellent organization. But we need a willing partner to do that."