Elsipogtog's youth centre remembered as safe space by community members

The centre burned down early Thursday, according to RCMP. The fire is considered suspicious. (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)
The centre burned down early Thursday, according to RCMP. The fire is considered suspicious. (Pierre Fournier/CBC - image credit)

For Phoenix Augustine, Elsipogtog's youth centre was her "saving grace" growing up.

The centre burned down early Thursday, according to RCMP, and the fire is considered suspicious.

Augustine said the centre was a judgment-free place.

"No matter what kind of day you had, whether good or bad, you could always count on the people in there to give you a smile and to say, 'How are you?' and 'How's your day going?'" said Augustine.

Augustine is from St. Mary's First Nation, where she currently lives.

But from the ages of 12-18, she lived in Elsipogtog, where her dad's family is from. Augustine spent some time in the foster care system and she said one thing that always stood out to her was how much the youth centre cared.

Pierre Fournier/CBC
Pierre Fournier/CBC

She said she would go there at least once a week to draw or hang out with friends and she often attended one of their summer camps.

Augustine said her heart sank when she read on social media about a fire at Elsipogtog. She said questions ran through her head when she realized it was at the youth centre.

"How are we going to rebuild? How are we going to fix this? What's going to happen now? Are we even going to have another youth centre?"

She said the kids who went to the centre are at "really impactful ages." She said it could be an escape from drugs in the community or a place for single parents to send their kids if they needed a bit of a break.

Submitted by Phoenix Augustine
Submitted by Phoenix Augustine

Heidi Simon from Elsipogtog said she also found out about the fire on social media. She saw a photo of the youth centre with no roof and missing walls.

She said it was shocking. She immediately sent the photo to her son, Talon Simon.

"You just don't even understand why things like this happen," she said. "It's really hard."

Submitted by Talon Simon
Submitted by Talon Simon

Talon Simon said "it was kind of unbelievable" when he saw the photo. In September, Talon and Heidi spent time raising money for the centre with an orange shirt sale for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation through Talon's business, Rez Famous Brand.

Talon designed a shirt with a Mi'kmaw hieroglyph of children holding hands in a circle.

"I always want to see if I can give back," said Talon. "Seeing the youth centre was like a perfect place to give back to because I know how much they do youth activities."

They raised $8,150. Heidi said the presentation cheque was even displayed inside the centre.

Talon said he would like to be a part of any fundraising for the centre in the future,

Jonah Simon, a second cousin to Heidi, also had a direct relationship with the youth centre.

Pierre Fournier/CBC
Pierre Fournier/CBC

He worked there in 2008 at their summer camp after graduating from high school. From 2018 to 2020, he worked there each summer at a program called Access Open Minds.

He returned to the program, which was renamed Access Elsipogtog, this summer.

Jonah said he was working with at-risk youth while there. He said it was a place where they could relax, feel safe and talk about what was on their minds.

He said the centre was important for youth, but also for the wider community. Jonah said it hosted events and was often the meeting spot for parades, like the Pride parade in recent years.

"I hope that it does get rebuilt right away," he said. "It was very important for children and youth to have that space."