Sagkeeng First Nation was in mourning, grieving the loss of an aboriginal girl who days before became the latest indigenous woman to go from missing to murdered.
In nearby Winnipeg, where Tina Fontaine's body was found in the Red River, Patrol Sergeant Edith Turner spoke tearfully at a vigil honouring the teen. But when she attended the Aug. 23 funeral a few days later, she left her uniform at home. She wasn't there as the Winnipeg Police Service's aboriginal liaison officer; she was there as a mother of a 13-year-old girl.
"It hit so close to home," she told The Globe and Mail. "I feel like I have a responsibility to First Nations women. … I felt that I needed to be there."
In a sitdown interview in the Manitoba capital, Patrol Sgt. Turner discussed the challenges police face in protecting native women and the importance of building trust with the aboriginal community.
But the inroads she and the force have made are now under threat in the wake of news that two police officers had contact with Tina the last day she was seen alive but let her go, despite her being the subject of a missing-person report. Chief Devon Clunis learned of the encounter on Sept. 3 – before Patrol Sgt. Turner spoke with The Globe – but he didn't announce the discovery until after the media had already reported it. The WPS, which has launched an internal investigation, declined to comment beyond Chief Clunis's Sept. 25 remarks.
Tina's case has thrust the plight of aboriginal women to the fore, as native leaders and premiers call for more federal action to address Canada's 1,181 missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls. On Saturday, victims' families and activists will hold hundreds of vigils across the country, their candles marking a decade since Amnesty International released a report documenting violence against indigenous women.
The case has proved a particular challenge for Winnipeg police. Seven weeks since Tina's body was found, there are no new developments in the homicide investigation, a WPS spokesman said. And in the wake of the chief's announcement, the force is facing allegations of bias. "They seem to turn a blind eye toward aboriginals," said Tina's aunt, Thelma Favel, who raised the girl for 10 years.
Fostering trust is a priority for Canadian law-enforcement agencies as they work to prove they're doing their utmost to find missing native women. In some cases, the relationship is so broken that relatives report a missing person to a native organization instead of to police, and witnesses don't come forward over fears they won't be adequately protected.
Across the country in British Columbia, the Vancouver Police Department is increasingly collaborating with local aboriginal groups to try to prevent and solve missing persons cases. Inspector Mario Giardini, who heads the diversity and aboriginal policing section, said the department is making progress but that it's "one step forward, five steps back."
Police forces are also looking to better reflect the communities they serve. While the WPS has a sizable aboriginal contingent – 11 per cent of its sworn officers are of native descent – other forces are struggling to attract aboriginal talent. Since 1996, some 470 candidates have completed the RCMP's aboriginal pre-cadet training program, and about half have gone on to apply to the federal force. Of those, roughly four dozen became police officers.
Staff Sergeant Randy Huisman, in charge of the Saskatoon Police Service's general investigations section, said the force "isn't where we'd like to be" on native recruitment. And of the 1,300 or so officers at the Vancouver departmnent, just 25 identify as aboriginal.
"Every policing agency is fighting to get aboriginal representation," said Insp. Giardini, who also sits on the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police's aboriginal policing committee. "It's a very small pool."
Patrol Sgt. Turner credits the WPS with preventing her from becoming one of Canada's missing or murdered. At 18 years old, she left Misipawistik Cree Nation – near where Jennifer Catcheway disappeared in 2008 – for downtown Winnipeg. She soon found herself in a relationship with a man she described as a "sexual predator." He was eventually deported after she and others testified against him, she said.
By age 22, Patrol Sgt. Turner put her troubled years behind her, donning a police uniform. "That saved my life," she said. The child of a residential school survivor, she grew up amid poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence. Still, she doesn't blame her parents:
"It's systemic," she said. "What's frustrating, and what hurts the most, is that our people are still putting themselves at risk. How can we work together to prevent these [tragedies] from continuously happening?"