Thelma Favel hopes a move back to her Manitoba reserve early this year will bring a fresh start, but first she must get through the trial of the man accused in the 2014 killing of the great-niece she raised as her own.
The two-bedroom house the Favels will move to on Sagkeeng First Nation is a short drive from their current home in Powerview-Pine Falls, where Tina Fontaine and her younger sister grew up after their mother fell into alcoholism and their father was diagnosed with cancer in 2003.
Tina, 15, was buried on the reserve, her ashes set atop the grave of her father, who was beaten to death in 2011, soon after doctors gave him four months to live. "I'll be just down the road from her [gravesite]," Ms. Favel said in a recent interview. "I can go visit her any time I want."
Tina was found dead in Winnipeg's murky Red River on Aug. 17, 2014, fomenting outrage across the country that yet another Indigenous woman had died violently. In December of 2015, a New Brunswick man was charged with second-degree murder in her death. Raymond Cormier was arrested just days after the Liberal government announced the launch of the first phase of the national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Last year, the prosecution was granted a direct indictment, meaning Mr. Cormier's case is going straight to trial without a preliminary inquiry. Manitoba Chief Justice Glenn Joyal has already ruled on a series of pretrial motions about the admissibility of evidence. The motions are subject to a publication ban until the jury begins its deliberations.
Jury selection begins on Jan. 25. The five-week trial will begin on Jan. 29 with the Crown opening its case. The prosecution and Mr. Cormier's lead counsel declined to comment before the trial.
Ms. Favel, who placed her struggling great-niece in provincial care just weeks before Tina was killed, said she expects to be called as the Crown's first witness. She intends to give jurors a sense of who Tina was – an endearing girl who was reading her driver's handbook and some day wanted to work with children. At the same time, Tina was a confused teen grappling with the details of court proceedings related to her father's killing.
Ms. Favel said prosecutors have confidentially told her how Tina died and showed her a photo of the girl's back, tattooed with a dedication to her father. Ms. Favel is nervous to hear more about her great-niece's demise, but she feels most uneasy at the thought of being in the same room as the accused. "I don't know how I'm going to pull through that, to be honest," she said. "But I have to have faith in the court system … that the right thing will be done."
The Sagkeeng First Nation band council last year told Ms. Favel and her husband, Joseph Favel, that a house had become available on the reserve; the family had been through so much, Ms. Favel recalls the chief saying, and it was time for them to come home to Sagkeeng. Ms. Favel is looking forward to getting back to the place where she grew up, but the couple decided to put off the move until after the recent holiday season and the upcoming trial.
This past Christmas was the family's fourth without Tina. She was not there to run down the hallways, her dark hair swaying in her wake as she hid the presents she bought for relatives with her allowance savings. She was not there to bake blueberry muffins – a holiday favourite and annual tradition. She was not there to say prayers around the tree, adorned with her homemade decorations, at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Day.
A move means going through the last of Tina's belongings – shoe boxes of jewellery, pencil crayons and makeup tucked away in her bedroom closet, for instance. The prospect is simply too painful at the moment, Ms. Favel said. When the Favels do leave their current home, they will bring the blue and white star-print blanket they draped over Tina's casket before she was cremated. They will also bring the framed school photos of the smiling teen. "When I look at Tina, I see it in her eyes: 'Don't give up, Mama. Something's got to be done,' " Ms. Favel said through tears.
She agrees, but is disillusioned with the ongoing national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The inquiry team has been criticized for failing to adequately communicate with victims' families and has seen a series of high-profile departures – including the resignation of one of the five commissioners. Indigenous leaders and organizations have called for a total overhaul of the inquiry. "Why call an inquiry if this is what's going to happen?" Ms. Favel said. "Why lift people's hopes that something is finally going to be done about what's going on with our girls? It's frustrating and confusing."
Ms. Favel has fostered 67 children and youth in her lifetime, and is a firm believer that the child-welfare system is ill-equipped to care for some of society's most vulnerable. Tina, for her part, went missing after Child and Family Services placed her in a downtown Winnipeg hotel because it apparently had nowhere else to put her.
After Tina's death, The Globe launched a months-long investigation into Manitoba's emergency child-welfare system. The reporting uncovered a litany of problems, including evidence of prolonged hotel stays, questionable supervision, possible security concerns and an overwhelmed after-hours child-welfare phone line that sometimes kicked emergency calls to an answering service. In late 2015, the province announced it had ended its use of hotels for temporary foster-care placements.
For years, Ms. Favel blamed herself for Tina's unravelling. She was convinced that if she had not voluntarily placed the girl in care, her great-niece would be here today. "I finally understand that I didn't do this to her," Ms. Favel said. "She was so confused – trying to have a relationship with her mom, not dealing with her feelings about her dad … I did everything I could do to keep her safe."
Ms. Favel said she hopes that once the trial has concluded and she is living in changed surroundings, she will feel less raw about the loss of the child she loved as a daughter. She also hopes she will be able to speak out about violence against Indigenous women and girls from a place of strength rather than tears.
"[Tina] will always be in my heart; nothing will ever change that," Ms. Favel said. "Maybe there was a reason why she died the way she did: So people could open their eyes, and change their cold hearts toward aboriginal girls."