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Canada Fontaine and Gross: Two missing teens garnered two different responses

When 14-year-old Alice Gross went missing on a rainy afternoon on Aug. 28 in London, England, police wasted little time mounting an aggressive search for the teenager.

A bright, talented student, Ms. Gross had last been seen walking a path along a canal and carrying a purple knapsack. Before long, Scotland Yard was declaring that the search for the missing girl involved the largest deployment of police resources since the hunt for those behind the 2005 London bombings that killed 52 people and injured 700 others.

It would eventually involve more than 600 officers from seven forces, who combed a search area that covered 25 square kilometres of land and 5.5 kilometres of canals and rivers. Dive teams were deployed, search dogs and volunteer police cadets were brought in. Eventually, the Royal Air Force was drafted to provide aerial reconnaissance footage. This occurred as 30 detectives pored over 10,000 hours of film from closed circuit cameras that might have captured a glimpse of the girl's last movements.

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A reward worth about $36,000 was offered for any information that helped police find the girl. Slightly more than a month after she was reported missing, the body of Alice Gross was recovered from a river a half-kilometre from where she was last seen alive. A prime suspect in her death has disappeared.

It is difficult not to compare the case of Alice Gross with that of a young Canadian teenaged girl of almost the same age whose body was also discovered in a river: 15-year-old Tina Fontaine. Except that the similarities quickly end when you contrast the search for Alice with the one for Tina. They cannot be likened in any meaningful way whatsoever. Any assessment of the two operations is useful only for prompting questions.

While we do not know all the details of Tina's last days, we know enough about the pitifully low regard people held for her that we should all be ashamed as Canadians.

Tina was reported missing on July 31. Winnipeg police later confirmed that, in the early morning hours of Aug. 8, officers pulled over a truck that was weaving on the road in the city's red light district. The adult male driver was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. A young, native girl who was in the truck was briefly questioned and released. It was Tina Fontaine.

We don't know if she gave her real name to police at the time. We don't know that she didn't. Regardless, we are certain a young girl found in those circumstances should not have been released onto the streets. The two police officers who dealt with her at the time have been put on administrative leave. We understand that after Tina was allowed to go, she was later found passed out drunk in an alleyway. She was taken to hospital and released. Police were not notified.

Tina was back on the streets on Aug. 9, hanging out with a female friend when she was reportedly approached by a man offering money for sex. Tina Fontaine allegedly told her friend she would be back in 15 minutes. That was the last time she was seen alive. On Aug. 13, four days later, and two weeks after she was reported missing, police issued a perfunctory release alerting the public to her disappearance.

It mentioned her aboriginal heritage, described her height, weight and the white skirt, pink jacket and white runners she was last seen wearing. It included the line: "Police are concerned for Fontaine's well-being."

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It's enough to make you weep.

There would be no manhunt for Tina Fontaine. The Winnipeg police's overworked, seven-officer missing persons unit did what it could. But the search effort, certainly compared with the one for Alice Gross, can only be described as pathetic. Her body was later discovered in a river where police were looking for the remains of someone else. It almost seemed fitting given the low priority that she seemed to be.

How could two countries – England and Canada – seemingly value a single human life so differently? Would Winnipeg police had put more effort into finding Tina Fontaine if she had been a well-adjusted white teenager from a middle-class family raised on the "right" side of town, like Alice Gross, and not a troubled native youth with a history of running away from home and living on the street? Why did Britons respond in such a profound way to Alice's disappearance, volunteering in droves to help search for her, while there was a collective community shrug when Tina Fontaine vanished?

In life, Tina Fontaine and Alice Gross existed worlds apart. There was huge gulf in the worth society ascribed to their lives as well. If nothing else, their disappearances proved that.

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