Women and girls often exploited in street gangs, says ex-member

Tina Fontaine's death may have horrified the Winnipeg Police Service but it did not surprise Ian McKinney. The former gang member says he has seen how vulnerable girls and women in the city are treated.

Ian McKinney, 24, opens up on the dangers of Winnipeg gang life

James Lathlin said the gang life is "violent and dysfunctional" and girls are quickly pushed into the sex trade. 2:14

Tina Fontaine's death may have horrified the Winnipeg Police Service but it did not surprise Ian McKinney.

That's because when it comes to vulnerable teenage runaways, the ex-gang member has seen firsthand how they're treated.

"They're used and abused," said McKinney, now 24. "It's trademark."

Fontaine was just 15 years old when her body was discovered in the Red River two weeks ago.

Winnipeg Police confirmed it was a homicide, going so far as to say that society should be "horrified" about her death.

They also confirmed the aboriginal runaway, a ward of Child and Family Services, had been sexually exploited.

So far, no arrests have been made and no motives have been revealed. There's been no reference made to any gang connections in Fontaine's case.

McKinney didn't know Fontaine. But if there's one thing he knows, it's gang life.

He grew up with it, he went to prison for it and he's in a wheelchair because of it — paralyzed from the arms down, thanks to a drive-by shooting last winter.

Dangers of the game

McKinney is now out of the life and, in fact, he talks to kids about the dangers of the game. Those dangers, he said, include exploiting girls like Fontaine.

"Girls, money," he said. "Girls are used, right? They're basically to hold the drugs, the guys pimp them, right? To make money."

The statistics back him up. According to a recently released RCMP report, Winnipeg has the "most visible" presence of sexually exploited girls in the country, and a lot of them are exploited by gangs.

The CBC's Marcy Markusa, left, interviews Ian McKinney in his Winnipeg home. You can hear the full interview on Information Radio at 8:10 a.m. Tuesday. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)
"At least, some of them are; we hear this a lot," says Diane Redsky, project director for the Canadian Women's Foundation national task force on human trafficking.

Another grim trend: at least 90 per cent of them, like Tina Fontaine, are aboriginal.

James Lathlin, 37, also knows a thing or two about Winnipeg's ugly side. He's got the battle scars to prove it. Also an ex-gang member, Lathlin's body is riddled with stab wounds and bullet wounds.

But his heart is intact and his message, though harsh, is clear: if you're a girl, if you're a runaway and if you're on the streets, you're going to be at risk.

"I don't care who you are, if you're out there at one in the morning or whatever, and you haven't told no one where you are. You're gonna get hurt," he said.

'There's no honeymoon period'

That's especially ironic given that both McKinney and Lathlin echo a sentiment noted by Redsky: more often than not, the girls are looking for affection, a connection.

"They're looking for the loving, they're looking for a family," said McKinney.

But Lathlin said, "There's no honeymoon period; it's not like the movies. It's violent and dysfunctional right from the start."

Said Redsky, "Within a day or two of hooking up with them, the girls are out on the streets, working [in the sex trade]."

As for Tina Fontaine, it remains to be seen who exploited her, who killed her and why.

But veterans of the street wars, like McKinney and Lathlin, agree with advocates like Redsky — there are too many Tina Fontaines out there.

And all three of them, in their own way, want to stop the violence.