Nova Scotia

Cape Breton resource centre helps aboriginal women at risk

A small drop-in centre in downtown Sydney is making a big difference for aboriginal women at risk by offering counselling, health care and a needle exchange program.

'I know that we, as a community, turn a blind eye to this issue,' says co-ordinator Heidi Marshall

Heidi Marshall, volunteer co-ordinator of the Mi'kmaq Women's Resource Centre in Sydney. (Steve Sutherland/CBC)

A small drop-in centre in downtown Sydney is making a big difference for aboriginal women at risk. 

The Mi'kmaq Women's Resource Centre offers services such as counselling, health care and a needle exchange program to women who work in the sex trade, many of whom are intravenous drug users or recovering addicts. 

Heidi Marshall, the volunteer co-ordinator, opened the centre in December with no permanent funding, one outreach worker and a roster of volunteers.

She and her daughter decided to open the centre after years of working with a task force in Cape Breton on trafficking and sex work. 

"There was a lot of talk but there was really no solutions," said Marshall. "My vision for the place right now is to provide some safe services for the women. I just want to keep them safe, to be able to have non-judgemental services in harm reduction."

'They feel they have no one'

Marshall says many of the women have had their children taken into provincial care, have no home and nowhere to turn. 

"In the communities, they feel they have no one," she said. "They feel that their leadership has abandoned them, the health-care providers in the community have abandoned them … they have no support whatsoever." 

The centre has about 20 regular clients between the ages of 15 and 45 and, according to Marshall, four of the clients who work in the sex trade are between the ages of 15 and 18. 

She says the women have told her that some of the johns are abusive and controlling, and some of the women are being trafficked by their boyfriends. 

"They want out, they don't want to do this," said Marshall. "All of them are involved in some type of survival sex. It's not all about drugs; some of it is just for food, tobacco."  

Death hits hard

One of the clients from the centre died recently of a suspected overdose, according to Marshall. She was found on the street in Sydney. 

Cape Breton Regional Police responded to a call of a woman found unconscious on Argyle Street in Sydney on Feb. 28. She died in hospital three days later

Police are awaiting a medical examiner's report on the cause of her death.

Marshall says it's been a very difficult time for the women and the volunteers at the centre. She says this is the reality many of them face every day. 

"You can't force them to get into a program," she explained. "They need to be ready for it, they need a long-term exit strategy, not just going to a six-week program and then they're on their own. They're going to relapse." 

'I've learned so much from these women'

Marshall is working on funding proposals to keep the centre running and she hopes to be able to hire a full-time co-ordinator. 

The centre is also receiving donations and support from First Nations communities and agencies such as the Ally Centre and Transition House in Sydney and the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association.

She says if the centre doesn't provide services to these women, no one else will.

"I know that we, as a community, turn a blind eye to this issue. We do in all First Nations communities and not only in First Nations communities, in non-native communities," Marshall said.

"I've learned so much from these women. Their addiction does not define who they are. They're beautiful human beings who just want to be loved and be respected and it's about building that relationship with them." 

With files from Steve Sutherland, Information Morning Cape Breton