Former gang member raising awareness to help at-risk youth

Today, James Lathlin is a public speaker raising awareness about the dangers of crime and drugs, but in a former life he walked Winnipeg’s streets as gang member.

Elizabeth Fry Society advocate says more options are needed for girls on the street in Manitoba

Former gang member James Lathlin hopes to raise awareness by sharing his experiences with youth about the dangers of crime, drugs and life on the street. (CBC)

Today, James Lathlin is a public speaker raising awareness about the dangers of crime and drugs, but in a former life he walked Winnipeg’s streets as a gang member.

“I've been shot, I've been stabbed, thrown through windows, car accidents because of being a thief,” said Lathlin.

He first heard about the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine from his son while at a speaking engagement in Ontario.

Fontaine had been reported missing from Child and Family Services care in early August and had only been in the city for about a month. Winnipeg Police said she'd been exploited.

The case made Lathlin think of his own kids. He said he knows how easy it can be for trouble to find young people on the streets.

“You have gangsters that push the drugs on them and then start using them, manipulating,” said Lathlin. “Then you have normal girls that are in the game putting it down, showing them, you know, ‘now that you have an addiction, this is what we do for a living.’”

More services for at-risk youth

Lathlin said there needs to be more education in schools about what can happen to youth, along with more safe places to go and more resources that are available at night, when young women and men are most at risk.

Tracy Booth from the Elizabeth Fry Society said while there are some resources out there, including two emergency youth shelters, what's available in Winnipeg isn't enough.

Booth said she thinks people don't seem to care about the growing list of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and that is part of the reason why there aren't enough services available to help girls on the street in Manitoba.

She said silence from Winnipeggers gives her the impression that people aren't very concerned.

"I don't see a willingness in the non-Aboriginal community to say that this is not a good thing,” said Booth. “We do not want Winnipeg to be the hot spot for Aboriginal missing and murdered women. I hear nothing from the non-Aboriginal community."

Booth said there is an immediate need for more mental health services for Aboriginal youth, including more counselling for victims of sexual abuse.

According to Booth, Manitoba is sorely lacking in  these services.
Advocate Tracy Booth said Manitoba is not offering at-risk girls and women enough options to get off the street or to access health services. (CBC)

In other Canadian cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, at-risk girls can get help more readily or a place to stay at any time of day or night, Booth said.

"If you don't want to be involved with the police or child welfare, there really isn't another place to call. You can call the crisis lines, but they're not going to get you food, shelter or safety," said Booth. "It's a huge gap in services."

She said child abuse often drives girls to the streets.

"If they wanted a new pair of jeans or new shoes, because you've been already sexually abused, it was easier to go out and participate in the sex trade as a youth," said Booth.

Booth wondered whether the growing call for services will change when there's no groundswell of outrage like the one created by the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine. Fontaine's body was found on the edge of the Red River wrapped in a bag in August. 

"Even if we had met Tina Fontaine, or other agencies had met Tina Fontaine prior to her death there's nowhere to refer her in the evening or at night. Like at one or two o'clock in the morning, " she said.

"There hasn't been the development of social services for youth at risk so that there safe places for them to go, as there is in other cities."

James Lathlin is open with his kids about what he's been through and wants to keep showing youth what they should stay away from.

“It just made me realize what I need to do with my work and that's prevention and awareness,” he said.

In doing so, Lathlin hopes to help prevent what happened to Tina Fontaine from happening again.