Skip to main content

Tina Fontaine (R) with her sister Sarah on the Sagkeeng First Nation, Pine Falls Manitoba, August 20, 2014.Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Thelma Favel has called the Manitoba crisis line nine times in the past two weeks. With Tina Fontaine gone, the woman who raised her is wondering whether life is worth living – whether she would rather die than remain in a world without the girl she loved as a daughter.

All the while, she is concerned Tina's little sister secretly thinks about suicide or self-harm too. Sarah, 14, had stopped going to school but recently transferred to a new one, away from the halls she shared with Tina, her best friend. At home, Sarah confines herself to Tina's old bedroom, where she stares at pictures of her sister and their father, who was beaten to death three years ago.

This will be the family's first Christmas without Tina – the first time she will not be there to open presents or make devil's food cake, her favourite.

"I asked [Sarah] what she wants for Christmas, and she said, 'My sister,' " said Ms. Favel, who has barely left the home since Tina's August killing, consumed by the irrational notion that the girl might call, crying out for help. "It's Christmastime. It's all about family, and a big part of my family is gone."

We know of this family's suffering because Tina's case made headlines. We also know of Rinelle Harper's plight because her parents consented last month to releasing the 16-year-old's name to help police find her attackers. But with more than 1,180 murdered and missing native women across Canada, untold families are waging private battles to avoid losing yet another loved one, this time to suicide, depression, substance abuse or crime.

There are services in place to help victimized families – counselling and compensation, for example – but native leaders say too few programs cater specifically to aboriginals. Advocates want more provincial and federal funding for culturally specific programs. They want more on-reserve healing centres so those recovering from trauma can access ongoing care.

"There's really no strategy to make sure a family is taken care of by experts, and by experts I don't just mean people with degrees, but also traditional healers and family supports," said Michèle Audette, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. "The pain of an aboriginal family is filled with many layers of injustice."

Many of these families have been victimized before, in part because native women are far more likely to be murdered or go missing than non-native women. The pain is fresh every time.

Take Tina's family and the Harpers. Tina's body was dumped in the Red River; her father died after a drug- and alcohol-fueled beating. Ms. Harper was sexually assaulted and left for dead. Her stepsister was raped. Her grandmother died in a rooming-house fire lit to kill another resident.

"How much can one family bear?" asked Grand Chief David Harper, a relative of Ms. Harper's who represents 30-odd northern Manitoba communities.

When violence strikes, the victim-services system kicks in. In Manitoba, families can access funding for funeral arrangements, medical bills and counselling services through the provincial Compensation for Victims of Crimes Program.

Applications are assessed case-by-case, and funds can be paid out regardless of whether there is a conviction or charges laid. The program typically allows for $2,000 in counselling services per person, but in extreme cases such as homicide, that amount may be doubled. Should someone need to travel for care, the province will fund transportation and accommodation. On rare occasions, the government will pay to fly a counsellor to a remote community.

The province also helps fund Ka Ni Kanichihk, an organization in Winnipeg that offers a counselling and support program specifically for families of murdered and missing aboriginal women. The Medicine Bear program, which offers cleansing smudge ceremonies, cedar baths and beading circles, has helped dozens of families since it launched a few years ago. "We treat people like relatives, not clients," said executive director Leslie Spillett. "We're in the community; we're from the community. … Our families often don't know who killed our kids. There's seldom closure."

Desperate for answers, Ms. Favel has asked police how Tina died. "I just want to know what was happening to her when she took her last breath," she said of the 15-year-old. She said police told her they cannot disclose that information since the investigation is continuing. "That's the hardest part right now – waiting to see who would do something like this," she said.

After cancelling several appointments with Sagkeeng First Nation's healing centre, Ms. Favel is slated to see a trauma counsellor Thursday. "I know I need help," she said. She wants Sarah, who was suspended last month because she and her friends smelled of marijuana on school grounds, to speak with someone on a regular basis as well. "I'm scared I'm going to lose her," Ms. Favel said.

Her husband of more than 40 years, Joseph Favel, said Sarah's behaviour lately is reminiscent of Tina's before she started running away. Tina had been struggling with the details emerging in court proceedings related to her father's killing. These days, Sarah is dealing with both deaths. "She hangs off my shoulder, like Tina used to," Mr. Favel said. "I'm having good days and bad days myself, but I have to be strong for my family."

Tina and Rinelle Harper did not know each other, but their families are now connected. Both native girls were left for dead in or near one of the city's rivers. Ms. Favel said she left a message for the Harpers through the Grand Chief's office saying she was relieved to hear their daughter emerged from the river alive. The Harpers, in return, said Tina's loved ones are in their prayers.

Ms. Harper's parents plan to arrange counselling for their daughter, who is now recovering at the family's rented Winnipeg home and is expected to address the Assembly of First Nations in mid-December. Ms. Harper said she is not having nightmares, but her parents worry she might soon have flashbacks. The family has not yet made plans for the Christmas break, but since Ms. Harper is intent on getting back to her Winnipeg boarding school, they will likely remain in the city rather than return to their northern community.

Ms. Favel, meantime, hasn't managed to decorate the Powerview-Pine Falls home where Tina grew up, at least not yet. She and her husband are planning to honour the girl by setting a small Christmas tree atop her ashes, which were buried in an urn on her father's grave. They will also hang Tina's favourite ornament in their living room – a silver chain with a key-shaped pendant.

Asked what message she has for Canadians as they too prepare for the holidays, Ms. Favel paused and said: "Just please, say some extra prayers for my Sarah."