When Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled from the Red River in 2014, and her name released by Winnipeg police, the 15-year-old from Sagkeeng First Nation became a symbol of the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
There should be no chance that, if a similar tragedy occurred today, the victim might remain anonymous. Yet, there is now a small risk of that, because of a troubling trend that leaves it to police discretion whether to release homicide victims’ names at all.
In 2017, Edmonton’s police service shifted to often only giving the age and gender of murder victims, along with rough location of the alleged crime, in cases where providing names was not deemed to serve an investigative purpose. Alberta’s chiefs of police adopted a similar framework later last year, and Regina police this past May.
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It’s an approach seemingly rooted in good intentions. But it is at odds with the need to know who in our society is being murdered.
At issue appears to be an attenuated reading of freedom of information and privacy laws, which include provisions protecting the deceased and their families, but also give governments latitude to release information in the public interest. In other words, police are determining in these cases – 17 of 42 homicides in Edmonton last year – that shielding the bereaved from media scrutiny trumps transparency.
That’s an understandable impulse: Fielding interview requests is terribly difficult for those in shock over sudden loss of loved ones.
But the goal of such requests, which families have every right to turn down, is not just to generate headlines. It’s to probe the circumstances around tragedies, from which broader lessons might be drawn. And it’s also to humanize victims, making them harder to ignore.
When victims’ names are not released by police, they can only be found in court records after charges are laid. That might have meant not learning about Tina Fontaine for nearly a year-and-a-half after her murder – and fewer Canadians ever learning about her at all.
In her specific case, investigative demands could well have taken priority over privacy concerns; perhaps police would have decided regardless that the public interest was too great to ignore. But even a slim possibility of being left in the dark, about stories that so urgently need to be told, is far too great.