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The Maison Baldwin House executive director was celebrated at a special and intimate dinner in Cornwall on Friday, after being bestowed with a rare provincial award in the Seaway Valley.
Debbie Fortier, the recipient of a 2022-23 Attorney General’s Victim Services Award of Distinction, told a gathering of about 40 at the Best Western Parkway Inn she considered it to be a huge honour, and she was overwhelmed with gratitude at the support from everyone in the room.
“Wow, I think everyone has said it all – I have nothing left to say,” Fortier joked, beginning her remarks after numerous speakers at the podium – including Sen. Bernadette Clement – talked about her hard work, ingenuity and longevity in leading Maison Baldwin House, a 10-bed facility for women and their children, that’s located on Fourth Street in downtown Cornwall, and which has a mission to assist in the transition from violent and abusive circumstances to a safe and secure environment.
Fortier, of Massena, began her career at the shelter 40 years ago, and became executive director in 1999 – and currently has no plans of slowing down.
She told the gathering the average period of time before burnout in what is a very taxing profession is just three to four years.
“So I’m either crazy and nobody has the heart to tell me, or I’ve been able to practise some pretty good self-care,” said Fortier, winner of an award that recognizes the dedication and achievements of professionals, organizations and volunteers working to support people who have experienced victimization due to crime, and to raise awareness of victims’ issues in Ontario.
In December, Fortier said she was humbled and surprised just to be nominated for the award, and grateful people in the community had recognized the work she’s done in the sector.
Fortier was nominated by Lambia Karitsiotis, and with support from others; Karitsiotis is a long-time probation and parole worker who’s director of training with the Global Resource Epicenter Against Human Trafficking.
Karitsiotis at the dinner said there is nobody more deserving of the award than Fortier, doing so well and for so long what is often thankless work.
“Your motivation, your dedication is second to none,” Karitsiotis said.
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Joanne Porporo, president of the board for Maison Baldwin House, said everyone with the organization is filled with an overwhelming sense of pride.
“Your tireless efforts, your unwavering dedication to our shelter, continues to transcend expectations,” Porporo said.
Said Cornwall Mayor Justin Towndale: “I honestly cannot think of someone more deserving. Your impact in the community is unparalleled.”
Sarah Kaplan, the master of ceremonies for the event who introduced guest speakers that included Stormont—Dundas—South Dundas MP Eric Duncan and SDSG MPP Nolan Quinn, said Fortier is “kind, and very practical. . . when she sets her mind to something, she makes it happen.”
Clement, a former chair and board member for Maison Baldwin House, told Fortier she’s always thought of her as being “so cool in having so many interests. . . Debbie does a million things and she does all of it with so much energy and devotion.
“Forty years is remarkable, but you have stayed young, and fresh and vibrant, and that’s what’s more remarkable.”
Fortier started out at Baldwin House as a front-line counsellor, at a facility run by the Sisters of Holy Cross, specifically Sister Pauline Rheaume and Sister Eleanor Labranche. Fortier was later promoted to staff co-ordinator, before being named executive director.
At the dinner, Fortier said Rheaume was her mentor, and a photo of the two from three years ago was on a display table. Rheaume, in her mid-90s, lives in Montreal.
“She truly believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Fortier said.
Those eligible for the award include professional practitioners and paid victim services providers who have gone above and beyond their regular duties while providing to support people who have experienced victimization due to crime.
For 2022-23, 15 individual awards of distinction are being presented, and there are four group recipients.
The citation for Fortier reads as follows:
Since 1983, Debbie Fortier has been working at the Maison Baldwin House in Cornwall – a shelter for women experiencing abuse that was started by the Sisters of Holy Cross in 1980. After becoming its executive director in 1999, Debbie has represented Maison Baldwin House on various committees and acts as a mentor to people new to the field. Today, Debbie continues to go above and beyond for survivors of abuse, such as creating a committee to develop the first community police/shelter/outreach protocol for the area to establish a directive for how the Ontario Provincial Police, Cornwall Community Police Service and Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service could better serve women leaving situations of domestic violence. To add financial support to Maison Baldwin House, Debbie launched Serendipity, a thrift store completely run by volunteers. The store’s proceeds have helped to off-set shelter operational costs, while providing an opportunity for women living there to gain valuable employment skills.