Not-guilty verdict for the murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine
By Jaina Kelly, Staff Writer
The Canadian justice system is not designed to protect Indigenous lives. It has allowed repetitive injustices committed against Indigenous people to be accepted and legitimized. Despite the seeming shift in the attitudes of society to less ignorance and more awareness thanks to groups like Idle No More, there is a significant lagging that cannot be ignored. This shortcoming took the form most recently in the acquittal of Raymond Cormier, the man charged with second-degree murder of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. The story of Fontaine’s death sent ripples of anger, frustration, and hopelessness across Canada’s Indigenous communities. It’s a story that seems to replay on a loop, with a different teenager each time. Each time, a vulnerable Indigenous person is left alone to grapple with the odds stacked against them.
Indigenous leaders in Manitoba don’t just blame the justice system as a source of failure. They call bullshit on all the government systems that failed Fontaine. These systems of health care and law enforcement are supposed to have been designed to protect Canadians from falling through the cracks. They are also supposed to protect vulnerable citizens from becoming victims of murder or abuse. During her time in Winnipeg, where she was visiting her birth mother, Valentina Duck, Fontaine came into contact with multiple government-based aids including Child and Family Services, police officers, security officers, and hospital staff. These aids are supposed to help kids stay on a safe path, however, embedded racist ideas of who deserves to be helped usually means that Indigenous kids are left in free-fall with no support.
Manitoba has the highest rate of children in government care in Canada. Consequently, children who grow up in care are more like to struggle with homelessness, addiction, and mental health problems, according to Premier Brian Pallister. Following an announcement in October 2017 which announced that the Child Welfare system in Manitoba will undergo a “complete overhaul,” the Premier added: “90 per cent of children in care are of Indigenous descent and they are growing up disconnected from their natural families, their communities.”
Canadian child welfare is an oxymoron: intended to keep children safe from harm, it historically has proven only to add insult to injury and make things worse for the vast majority of Indigenous people in the country. This systematic lack of support, fueled by racism and ignorance, is rampant among police officers that are supposed to be trained professionals. The last night that Fontaine was seen alive, a police came across her in a vehicle that was being driven by a suspected drunk driver. They took the driver into custody and let all the passengers go, despite the fact that Fontaine was designated as a missing person who should have been recognized and protected. Officers had taken her name down and but that wasn’t enough to compel them to act. Fontaine’s great-aunt, Thelma Favel, responded to this failure with a heavy heart, stating: “I don’t even know, like I can’t find words right now. I am angry. I am hurt. My baby might still be here instead of buried on top of her dad.” (Fontaine’s father was murdered in 2011 in Sagkeeng Reserve of Manitoba, where Favel had housed and cared for Fontaine following a stint with Child and Family Services.)
While Fontaine was away in Winnipeg, Favel became concerned when she hadn’t heard from her. She contacted CFS and asked them to take her into their care. They did – but did not contact her with updates. They even failed to contact her when they found Fontaine’s body in the Red River. The story is heart-breaking and all-too-familiar. Whether it’s the Red River, or the Kaministiquia River in Thunder Bay, it seems like the same issue is being screamed into oblivion over and over without resolve. What will it take to fix our system? On February 10th, Colten Boushie’s murderer Gerald Stanley was acquitted despite admitting that he killed 22-year-old Boushie. The jury ruled the shooting as ‘accidental’ and relieved him of all responsibility. On the day of the crime, Stanley had sat inside his farmhouse, casually drinking coffee while he waited for the police and while Boushie’s dead body lay outside.
These acquittals (concluded by nearly all-white jury members) send out the message that our “justice” system is not designed to protect Indigenous lives. In fact, it’s been designed to discard them. Pam Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, published an op-ed for Now Magazine on why Canada should go on trial for Fontaine’s death. Not only does she shame Canada’s failure to help Indigenous people build stable and functional communities, she also calls out mainstream media in their complacency toward victim-blaming Fontaine for drinking alcohol and doing drugs. She is right. This normalization of victim blaming Indigenous teenagers for their own deaths is absolutely despicable: they are children.
According to CBC news, Manitoba’s Children’s Advocate, Daphne Penrose, is now working on a report that may, depending on the discretion of the family, release at least some details on Fontaine, that were previously unavailable due to trial proceedings. If the family prefers the details to remain private, she has stated that she will, at the very least, speak publicly about any relevant findings.
Mary Burton, co-founder of the child-welfare advocacy group, “Fearless R2W”, speaks of Fontaine on a Manitoba-based radio interview, stating: “We don’t want her death to be for nothing.”
Changes must be made, but for now, it’s hard to see what will be done to ensure this never happens again.