Winnipeg’s Red River has become ground zero in the ongoing fight for a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women, its muddy waters the site of a grim discovery by police divers who were actually looking for another person’s body when they happened upon the remains of Tina Fontaine.
On Tuesday evening, hundreds descended upon Alexander Docks, near where the 15-year-old was found on Sunday, to begin a vigil that would take them to a monument honouring Manitoba’s missing and murdered aboriginal women at the Forks – the historic intersection of the Red and Assiniboine rivers boasting some 6,000 years of aboriginal history.
As the sun reflected on the brown waters, Tina’s family, friends and scores of supporters gathered in solidarity, singing healing songs and burning sage to cleanse and guide the spirit. The sound of drums matched each step taken as the marchers, led by Grand Chief Derek Nepinak and Tina’s mother, weaved through the downtown core.
“Why did they take you away from me?” cried Tina’s mother, Tina Duck, once the ceremony began at foot of the monument, where she told gatherers she hadn’t seen her daughter for two years. “You’re in a good place now, Tina. Nobody can bother you or hurt you … I love you, my girl.”
Ottawa has launched initiatives aimed at addressing past wrongs against aboriginals, including when it comes to the Indian Residential School system, but some native leaders have questioned whether reconciliation is possible so long as the government refuses to launch a national inquiry into Canada’s more than 1,000 known missing and murdered aboriginal women. Here in Manitoba, the case is especially stark: half of the province’s female murder victims between 1980 and 2012 were aboriginal, according to a recent RCMP report.
Tina was last seen in downtown Winnipeg on Aug. 8 and was reported missing the next day. Nine days later, her status went from missing to murdered.
The frustration among local leaders over Tina’s death was immediate and palpable: “Society would be horrified if we found a litter of kittens or pups in the river in this condition. This is a child,” Winnipeg police Sergeant John O’Donovan said when he announced the death Monday. “Society should be horrified.”
Claudette Dumont-Smith, head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was similarly upset. “[Tina] was 15. Who deserves that at 15 years old? It’s a blemish on Canada and it’s a blemish on all Canadians because this issue is not being addressed.” The NWAC views Tina’s death as a “starting point” toward a national inquiry. “We figure that’s the only way we’ll begin to resolve this crisis situation,” Ms. Dumont-Smith said.
Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said the same, noting his first thought when he heard of Tina’s death was “not another one.”
Also Tuesday, the NDP reiterated its call for a national inquiry, while the Canadian Human Rights Commission said the time is nigh to study the “root causes” of the deaths and disappearances.
But Tina’s case – just like that of Saskatchewan’s Marlene Bird, whose face was half cut off and legs burned to the bone in June – hasn’t changed Ottawa’s mind. The Conservative government on Tuesday reiterated it has no plans to launch a national probe, citing instead its tough-on-crime legislation and $25-million budget commitment to “directly address the issue” of missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Ms. Fontaine at this very difficult time,” federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that concluded: “Now is the time to take action, not to continue to study the issue.”
At the vigil, Ms. Duck was physically supported by fellow mourners, struggling to keep pace as her legs appeared to buckle at times. She held a single flower and bowed her head with tears that streamed beneath her sunglasses. Tina’s sister, Sarah, held a small bouquet of wildflowers and cried.
Doreen Merasty joined the vigil not because she knew Tina, but because she said her own sister, Emily Norma Ballantyne, has been missing for more than two decades.
“Why should our women go missing or die? Each case comes with its own story – its own family [left behind],” Ms. Merasty said, adding her sister had five daughters before she disappeared in Thompson, Man. “The government has a duty to do something … I want to find my sister. I want to bury her if I have to.”
Master of ceremonies Wab Kinew, the director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg and former broadcaster, said an inquiry could pave the way for policy changes and new funding to support aboriginal children and their families.
“Let’s keep that in mind, with one eye towards the family and their healing journey,” he said, to cheers and applause. “Let’s also make sure that we don’t rest until there’s a national inquiry."
In May, the RCMP revealed that 1,181 aboriginal women had either been killed or gone missing between 1980 and 2012. The data was unprecedented – and it appears to stop there.
“There is no intent as far as the broader police community to continue with maintaining a current, active data set,” said RCMP Superintendent Tyler Bates, director of national policing and crime prevention services.
Tina’s death, the precise cause of which has not yet been revealed, is also prompting scrutiny of the province’s child welfare system. Her mother on Tuesday night told the candlelit crowd her daughter was “supposed to be in a safe home, not on the street.”
The teen, who was originally from the Sagkeeng First Nation, was in the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services but had run away.
“[The child welfare system] can’t provide the degree of care that we can provide within our own communities,” said Grand Chief Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who previously worked at a child and family services agency.
A Family Services spokesman said that in keeping with standard procedure the province’s Office of the Children’s Advocate, as well as the appropriate child and family services agency, will investigate Tina’s case.
As for the police investigation, the force is appealing to the public for information as it tries to piece together the teen’s last movements.
In a twist, police divers who found Tina’s body wrapped in brown-grey plastic weren’t even looking for the petite teen as they felt their way through water so dark it is difficult to see more than a foot deep.
Winnipeg’s Constable Eric Hofley said the divers were trying to find signs of a man that an off-duty officer had spotted going under the Red River near the Forks on Friday. That man turned out to be Faron Hall, the so-called “homeless hero” who got his nickname for rescuing two people from drowning in the very same waters that swallowed him. He was found six hours later up the river; police say foul play is not suspected.
The vigil Tuesday was in his honour, too.
With reports from The Canadian Press and Kristy Hoffman, Special to The Globe from Winnipeg