Skip to main content

Tina Fontaine's aunt Thelma Favel holds her picture at her home on the Sagkeeng First Nation, Pine Falls Manitoba, August 20, 2014.Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Police, paramedics and a child welfare worker separately had contact with Tina Fontaine on the last day the aboriginal teenager was seen alive, prompting an internal investigation into the handling of a case that has brought the issue of Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women to the fore.

In what are believed to be his first public comments since Tina's body was pulled from the Red River on Aug. 17, Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis confirmed Thursday that a pair of officers encountered the 15-year-old during a traffic stop on Aug. 8, just over a week after she was reported missing from foster care.

Police had uncovered the interaction as part of the homicide investigation more than three weeks ago, but only released the details in a short press conference after the information had already been reported in the media.

"I was informed of this discovery on Sept. 3, and immediately directed our Professional Standards Unit to conduct an investigation," Chief Clunis said, noting the two officers have been placed on desk duty in the meantime.

The Winnipeg Police Service declined to provide additional comment after the briefing, but the teen's aunt has offered new details about Tina's last day based on conversations she had with police and Child and Family Services. She said her niece was in the care of a CFS worker on Aug. 8 after a brief hospital stay, but managed to run away again.

"She was in the hands of everybody who was supposed to be protecting her on her last night," said Thelma Favel, who had raised Tina for the past decade.

In an interview with The Globe, Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said she couldn't comment on the specifics of Tina's case but said her department is "fully co-operating" with police and is committed to helping find the murderer. She said there's always room for more interagency collaboration.

"It's very, very complicated working with children and youth every day," Ms. Irvin-Ross said, noting the ministry's internal investigation into Tina's care is continuing. "There are success stories, and then there are issues that … tell us we have a lot more work to do."

Reached at her home in Powerview-Pine Falls, Man., Ms. Favel recounted a conversation she had Wednesday with the lead investigator on the homicide case. She said Sergeant John O'Donovan told her the two officers took an impaired man into custody at the traffic check but that Tina, who had been the subject of a July 31 missing persons report, was ultimately let go.

"If [authorities] hadn't let her go, she would've still been here," Ms. Favel said.

Superintendent Danny Smyth said it's unclear whether the officers knew at the time they were dealing with Tina, who was reported missing again Aug. 9, or whether they took her briefly into custody. He said he expects police who encounter a missing person to take that individual into their care.

Ms. Favel said Sgt. O'Donovan also told her that on Aug. 8, a 911 call was placed after Tina was found passed out in the city's west end. Sources had previously told the Winnipeg Free Press that when Tina was spotted, her clothing appeared to have been removed and a possible sexual assault was feared. Ms. Favel said her niece was taken to the hospital, where she remained under observation for several hours, and was released into the custody of an on-call CFS worker. The worker didn't know the address where Tina was staying, so the person drove to an agency office to get the information. When the worker left the car, Tina disappeared one last time, Ms. Favel said.

Ms. Favel had recently placed Tina into care after a spate of runaway incidents and struggles stemming from her father's 2011 murder. When Ms. Favel reached out to CFS on Aug. 15 regarding her niece's whereabouts, she said she was told Tina had been "AWOL" for two weeks.

Ms. Favel said she's concerned police are handling cases involving aboriginals with less care than those involving non-natives.

"They seem to turn a blind eye toward aboriginals," she said. "It's 'just another drunk Indian or dumb Indian that's out there getting into trouble,' but meanwhile they're out there for a reason. There's something going on in their life."