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Canada Not in vain: How Tina Fontaine’s tragic story showed a way forward

Tina Fontaine's great-aunt, Thelma Favel, who cared for her in Powerview, Man., on May 12, 2019.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The New York Times News Service

Three years may have separated their deaths, but Tina Fontaine and her father were laid to rest in the same burial plot on Sagkeeng First Nation, in rural Manitoba. The young girl’s ashes were placed in an urn atop Eugene Fontaine’s casket, signifying the closeness the two shared in life. But the burial was fitting in another respect: While technically unrelated, their deaths are inextricably linked.

Mr. Fontaine was dying of cancer when he was beaten to death in 2011. Tina, who was being raised by her great-aunt, was just 12 years old. Over the next few years, the young girl started pulling away and, eventually, running away. She became the subject of multiple missing-person reports as she was passed back and forth between various child-welfare agencies.

In the summer of 2014, Tina’s 72-pound body was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River. She was 15 years old. The case laid bare a jurisdictional mess - a fatal series of missed opportunities to help a child so clearly in need. Her killing galvanized the Indigenous community and human-rights advocates across the country, reigniting calls for a national inquiry into the more than 1,180 reported deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls since the 1980s.

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“If things had been done differently, she’d still be here,” Thelma Favel, Tina’s great-aunt, said in a telephone interview from her home in Powerview-Pine Falls, Man., where Tina and her younger sister Sarah Fontaine were raised. “I think of that every day."

MMIWG inquiry reading list: Canada’s tragedy explained through the stories of three women and one word

On Monday, after nearly three years of hearings and information-gathering, the $92-million National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released a 1,200-page report that said the violence amounts to a race-based genocide. It contains 231 recommendations in areas such as child welfare, policing, justice and health.

Of course, Tina’s life would have been different had her father never been killed. Perhaps she would still be alive to realize her dream of working with children. But what if there had been even a slight change in her course at one point or another? What if she had seamless access to counselling services? What if there had been a stable child-welfare placement for her? What if police had taken her into their custody when they found her with an intoxicated man, instead of letting her go - despite her being the subject of an active missing-person report?

Ms. Favel asks herself versions of these questions every day. But what if her “what ifs” were Canada’s? What if governments, police forces and social-service agencies across the country implemented the calls to justice contained in Monday’s report?

“[The report] strips away the sense that there is nothing we can do about this,” said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which in 2016 won a human-rights case that found Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children by under-funding welfare services on reserves.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given Canadians his word that his government will turn the inquiry’s recommendations into “real, meaningful, Indigenous-led action.” The commission, he said this week, has “outlined the way forward.”

At the closing ceremony, Ms. Favel was too overcome to speak. Standing alongside her, Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, reiterated Ms. Favel’s plea for 24-hour shelters for at-risk children. And former Sagkeeng First Nation band councillor Marilyn Courchene said what many in the audience would have been thinking as they looked at Ms. Favel, wrapped in a red blanket with tears streaming down her face: “Without the awareness of what Tina brought to Canada, none of us would be here today.”

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Ms. Favel said she hopes the inquiry will help prevent cases such as Tina’s - like that of Phoenix Sinclair, the five-year-old Indigenous girl who was killed in provincial care in Manitoba in 2005. It was Phoenix’s death that compelled Tina to want to someday help protect children. She never got that chance, at least in life. Ms. Favel believes that Tina’s death was not in vain: “I’ve always thought she was chosen for a reason.”

SLAMMING DOORS

The Compensation for Victims of Crime form, completed by Ms. Favel in relation to the death of Tina’s father, was stamped “received May 28, 2013,” according to a recent Manitoba children’s advocate report on Tina’s case. In turn, the Victim Services office should have mailed a list of counselling resources to the family so they could choose the supports they needed and so arrangements could be made to cover the costs. But according to the children’s advocate, there is no evidence that such information was ever communicated.

Ms. Favel did, however, receive a letter saying she was not eligible for financial support because she effectively had guardianship of the two girls long before Mr. Fontaine died. (Given his health, Mr. Fontaine had penned an informal note granting Ms. Favel custody of his daughters). The Victim Services letter did not clarify that the family was nonetheless eligible for counselling and other benefits. “In the nearly three years of involvement since the homicide death of Tina’s father, victim services neither met directly with Tina nor did they arrange a single counselling session for her to help her manage her loss and grief,” the children’s advocate report says.

Under the national inquiry’s recommendations, families such as Tina’s would be guaranteed access to financial support as well as reliable, culturally relevant and trauma-informed services within the victim’s own community. And girls such as Tina would not have to wait: The commission recommends that governments establish crisis-response teams.

By the fall of 2013, Tina was frequently skipping school and had started running away from home. On one occasion, she was found in Winnipeg at the home of her mother, who was herself at the centre of a CFS protection case involving her other children. A few weeks after she turned 15 on New Year’s Day in 2014, Tina was involved in a family disagreement in Powerview-Pine Falls; it ended with her cutting her forearms with a pen and locking herself in her room. The family contacted the RCMP, the paramedics arrived and Tina was taken to the Pine Falls Health Complex. Tina told a nurse she did not have suicidal thoughts and had no history of self-harm; her cuts were bandaged and she was discharged, the children’s advocate report says. Medical staff did not contact child-welfare officials, and no psychological-services referral was made. Various agencies told the children’s advocate that the health complex does not have a social-work department, although it turns out there is a “rotation of social work that is provided at the complex, two to three times each month,” the advocate’s report says.

If the inquiry commission gets its way, this dearth of services will no longer be so. The report calls for the implementation of a national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women and girls - including ensuring “equitable access to basic rights” such as health care, housing, safety and education. “We shouldn’t have schools with black mould, we shouldn’t have places where there is no water, no domestic violence shelters,” said Ms. Blackstock, a member of B.C.'s Gitxsan First Nation. “These are fundamental building blocks of society that everyone takes for granted, but they are not there in First Nation communities."

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Fearing for Tina’s well-being, in the spring of 2014, Ms. Favel turned to a CFS agency and asked if she could place Tina in care. The intake file documented numerous concerns, including Internet luring and that Tina’s “biological mother poses risk of sexually exploiting Tina,” the children’s advocate report says. The issue of exploitation was not raised at a subsequent CFS meeting with Tina - an omission the children’s advocate deemed “especially concerning.”

The national inquiry calls upon CFS agencies to not only recruit Indigenous staff, but also promote the “intensive and ongoing” training of front-line workers in various areas, including sexual exploitation. The impetus, the commission says, is to recognize warning signs and develop specialized responses.

In June of 2014, a CFS agency referred Tina for counselling in Powerview-Pine Falls, where Tina was living. The services were not immediately available there, so Tina was expected to travel 75 kilometres, to Beausejour, Man., for treatment. The Favels do not have a car.

“Every time I tried to do something for Tina, I felt the doors were being slammed in my face,” Ms. Favel said. “I’m not a professional. We tried to direct her in the right way, but I don’t think she really paid attention to us. We’re only mama and papa.”

A memorial shelf for Tina Fontaine at the Powerview, Man., home of her great-aunt, Thelma Favel, who cared for her as a foster parent.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The New York Times News Service

CATCHING UP

On Canada Day in 2014, Tina set out from Powerview-Pine Falls for Winnipeg to visit her mother. Days later, after receiving a Facebook message from Tina’s boyfriend saying the teen and her mother were using crack cocaine and that Tina was being sexually exploited, Ms. Favel contacted a CFS agency in the city. Although a different CFS agency had acknowledged Ms. Favel as Tina’s primary caregiver, the intake worker told Ms. Favel that legal guardianship rested with Tina’s mother, requiring the involvement of a third CFS agency - the one that was handling Tina’s mother’s protection case. The three CFS agencies exchanged phone calls and came to a decision about which agency should take charge.

In the early hours of July 17, 2014, the Winnipeg Police Service responded to a call that Tina was screaming for help as a man dragged her by the arm down the street. When officers arrived, Tina and the 18-year-old man were intoxicated; they were detained for public intoxication and taken to separate detox centres. By the afternoon that same day, the teen was discharged to a CFS agency.

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There were no emergency placements available, so CFS housed Tina at a downtown Winnipeg hotel. Over the course of the next week or so, according to the children’s advocate report, Tina went missing, stayed in a youth shelter, ran away, returned and then left the shelter again.

The national inquiry makes numerous recommendations in the area of child-welfare, including that Indigenous communities have control over the design and delivery of services. These services, the report says, must be adequately funded and resourced. Governments must provide sustainable long-term investments to support Indigenous-led, low-barrier shelters. These shelters, the commission says, must be available wherever Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA [two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual] people reside." More must also be done on the CFS front-lines to prevent the recruitment of children into the sex industry.

“What they are calling for here is not more than what every other Canadian gets," said Ms. Blackstock, who appeared before the commission. "It’s the same opportunities Canadians have been taking for granted for decades. I think that First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have a just call for more investment in that area because of the ravages of colonialism and residential schools. It’s going to take a bit more to catch up.”

In early August of 2014, Tina was again reported missing. In its report, the children’s advocate said “no further evidence was provided to us that indicated WPS were actively searching for Tina while she was missing from August 1 - August 7, 2014.” Clive Weighill, who is Saskatchewan’s chief coroner and previously served as Saskatoon’s police chief and as president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said all cities in western Canada are confronting the challenge of “a large number of runaways, primarily young girls.” These children, he said, are at serious risk of disappearing. “It’s really important for the police to work with social services - to work with community groups,” said Mr. Weighill, who appeared before the commission. “Police have to bridge those gaps.”

A memorial for Tina Fontaine sits by the Red River in Winnipeg.

AARON VINCENT ELKAIM/The New York Times News Service

OPENING DOORS

Around 2 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2014, Tina and a friend showed up to a youth shelter, which contacted a CFS after-hours unit. Somehow, neither the shelter nor the after-hours unit were aware that Tina was the subject of a missing-persons report. Tina and her friend left at around 3:30 a.m. At 5:15 a.m., police pulled over a vehicle for failure to use proper signals. The driver was intoxicated, and Tina was in the car. The vehicle was impounded and Tina was let go, even though she had been reported missing. The WPS members were disciplined and are no longer officers.

A few hours later, Tina was found unconscious and partially unclothed in a back alley near the University of Winnipeg, a known area for sexual exploitation, the children’s advocate report says. At the hospital, she told a CFS worker about a friend of hers named “Sebastien,” whom she described as a 62-year-old methamphetamine user. “Sebastien” turned out to be Raymond Cormier, the man who was last year acquitted of first-degree murder in Tina’s case. Tina denied she had been sexually exploited or assaulted, refused an exam and was cleared for discharge. She was placed at the hotel under the supervision of a third-party worker. She left that evening and never returned.

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The children’s advocate found that it was not until after Tina was reported missing again, the following day, that police contacted the manager of the StreetReach program - which brings together law enforcement, community partners and child-welfare agencies to locate and protect vulnerable youth - to advise that the teen should be on their high-risk list. Ms. Favel believes that racism factored into the way police handled Tina’s file. She said it is important that police do not stereotype Indigenous women and girls. “Don’t just say, ‘That’s just another aboriginal,’ " she said.

The inquiry report calls for several improvements to the way police handle cases involving Indigenous women and girls, such as the recruitment of Indigenous officers, cultural-sensitivity training and the standardization of a thorough process for the investigation of all cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Tom Stamatakis, the president of the Canadian Police Association, noted that the report builds on previous work, including the Oppal Inquiry in B.C., which examined police failures in investigating the disappearances of women slain by serial killer Robert Pickton. “Police services have done a number of things to address concerns that we continue to hear, whether it’s around more training and education for police officers … or around how we are capturing and reporting information," he said. "We just need to continue that work.”

For Tina, it is all far too little, far too late. On Aug. 17, 2014, police divers found her body in the Red River.

Tina would have been eight-years-old when Ms. Blackstock filed the human-rights case against Ottawa. Had Canada not fought it, she said, perhaps Tina would have gotten the child-welfare services she needed. “Whether or not you think genocide happened, what we do know what happened - as matter of fact and a matter of law - was that in 2016, Canada was found to be racially discriminating against 165,000 kids,” she said, referring to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision that has resulted in several non-compliance orders against the federal government.

Ms. Favel has struggled with whether to trust that this government - or any, for that matter - will follow through on its promises. But after Monday’s ceremony, she said she believes more than ever that meaningful change is possible. “Because of what happened to [Tina], it’s opening doors for other children and women,” Ms. Favel said. “She put the spotlight on what is really happening."

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