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Tina Fontaine’s legacy: Justice will come ‘from all of us’


'Justice for Tina will come from all of us'

The death of this child made clear the urgent need for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Yet Tina Fontaine's case remains unresolved. Her legacy, however, is a lesson that is ours for the taking. Nancy Macdonald reports from Winnipeg

T he man accused of murdering Tina Fontaine was among the last to enter Courtroom 210 of Winnipeg's Law Courts Building to hear the verdict in his case. It's the largest marble courtroom on the continent, with cathedral ceilings and a sprawling public gallery. Grey Missisquoi marble lines the floors, the walls, the judge's dais.

Raymond Cormier's slow march to the prisoner's box on Thursday was closely tracked by a group of homicide detectives with matching dark suits and shaved heads. The only sound was a methodical clanging, as the chains binding Mr. Cormier's ankles struck marble. He wore the same, black-and-grey cotton sweater, faded slacks and bright white, Nike runners he had over 12 days of hearings, the trial outfit his lawyer chose.

Gone was the wild-haired meth addict from his widely circulated mugshot. Mr. Cormier's hair was cut to a tight buzz. He had gained weight on a prison diet. He looked so different, in fact, one early witness in his trial initially had trouble picking him out in the courtroom.

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On Thursday night, he was found not guilty of murdering Tina in August, 2014. For a second, a weighty silence hung in the air. Then Thelma Favel, the great-aunt who raised Tina from the time she was three, began quietly sobbing. In court every day, she had kept a rosary wrapped so tightly around her fist the indents stayed visible for hours afterward.

"My baby. My baby. Oh, my little girl," she cried, gripping the prayer beads and being comforted by First Nations leaders, including Marilyn Courchene, band councillor of the Sagkeeng First Nation, where Tina spent her early life.

There are times when Canadians can clearly see the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lives. Sometimes, such insights creep up quietly. Other times, they arrive with the force of an explosion. The February day a man was acquitted of murder in the death of Colten Boushie, the young Cree from the Red Pheasant First Nation he had shot in the head, was one of those times. The day Tina's tiny body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg's core, a little over a month after she'd left her great-aunt's home was another.

Now this verdict.

Tina Fontaine’s grave site on the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, February 19, 2018.

"Love for Tina"

Since the Stanley case ended, the country has been riding a wave of rage and grief. The morning after Mr. Cormier's acquittal, hundreds of Winnipeggers braved the February chill to march through the city's downtown in Tina's name. Some carried signs reading: "Justice for All," and "Love for Tina."

"I want you all to look around you – this is love for Tina," organizer Niigaan Sinclair told the crowd at Oodena Celbration Circle at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Winnipeg's mayor, Brian Bowman, acknowledged every Canadian has a responsibility to challenge racism: "No one can be blind to the racial tensions in our country," he said.

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"We need to do better," Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, tweeted shortly after the verdict. "Tina's is a tragic story that demonstrates the failures of all the systems for Indigenous children and youth on every level. We need to fix this."

First Nations leaders reacted with outrage to the acquittal of Cormier: "Canadian society failed Tina Fontaine," Kevin Hart, Manitoba regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said outside the courthouse. "Everybody, right now, across this country, should be ashamed of themselves for the injustice that just occurred here."

"All the systems that were to protect Tina failed her," said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. "If we want reconciliation and to truly protect our children we can no longer allow the status quo to exist. This is unacceptable."

The temptation is to say the justice system failed Tina the way it did Colten Boushie. And the two cases have several commonalities. In the span of a month, two white men were acquitted of murder in the deaths of two prairie First Nations youth. But the similarities end there.

Gerald Stanley, the farmer acquitted in Mr. Boushie's death argued the gun he was carrying misfired just as he pointed it at the young man's head. His lawyers had used peremptory challenges to reject potential jurors who appeared Indigenous.

More than two-thirds of the jurors for Mr. Cormier's trial were visible minorities or Indigenous. And the case against him was thin: no crime scene, no forensic evidence to tie him to a murder, no established cause of death (pathologists could only narrow it down to drowning or smothering).

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The Crown built its case around statements made by Mr. Cormier that were secretly recorded during a six-month undercover operation, codenamed Project Styx, that involved a Mr. Big sting. In one, Mr. Cormier is heard arguing with a woman and saying that there was a little girl in a "grave someplace screaming at the top of her lungs for me to finish the job. And guess what? I finished the job."

Prosecutor Jim Ross contended that Mr. Cormier was intimate with Tina, later killing her after she threatened to report him for statutory rape."You all know who that little girl is," he told the jury. "You know what the job is."

In another recording, Mr. Cormier, who claims he "beat" two murders says: "She was 15. I didn't know that. When I found out, that was it. I said I'm not going to bang her no more. I don't want nothing to do with you that way."

The recordings often had music in the background, and Mr. Cormier has an Acadian accent and a stutter, all of which made it difficult to hear what was said clearly.

His lawyer, Tony Kavanagh, reminded jurors in his closing remarks that his client never admitted killing the teenager, and that justice for Tina cannot come at the expense of justice for Mr. Cormier.

The idea that no one is being held responsible for Tina's death is a perverse, but fitting coda to her short, tragic life. Few would disagree with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman who noted shortly after the verdict that "we all failed Tina."

Thelma Favel, great-aunt of Tina Fontaine holds a rosary at her home on the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, February 19, 2018. The rosary helps keep Favel strong during the Fontaine trial.

The last days

On Aug. 8, 2014, at 5:05 a.m., police found her with Richard Mohammed, a man in his 30s who told the court he had asked her if she wanted to party. Officers let Tina go into the dark of dawn even though she had been reported missing. Hours later, she was found disoriented, asleep behind a car in a downtown lot where she had tried to rest, hugging her knees to keep warm in the rain.

Paramedics delivered Tina, whose legs were covered in bug bites, to Children's Hospital. No one alerted Ms. Favel. It was not the first time that happened: In July, Tina went missing for two weeks in downtown Winnipeg and Ms. Favel only found out after calling child welfare authorities.

From hospital, a child care worker dropped Tina at a lonely, downtown hotel, Manitoba's solution to an overburdened child welfare system, after buying her lunch at a McDonald's drive-thru. Tina told the worker about a new friend: a middle-aged meth addict.

The court heard that she first encountered Mr. Cormier one night in July, when he rode past on a bike, carrying a muffler. She was out with her friend Cody Mason, an 18-year-old who had been taken to Winnipeg from the St. Theresa Point First Nation for treatment after a car accident. Mr. Cormier gave the pair "gabbies," slang for the anti-epileptic drug gabapentin, which produces a high in large quantities.

Mr. Mason testified that when they told Mr. Cormier they had nowhere to go, he took them to the basement of a home where they could sleep, returning the next morning with money for food. They saw Mr. Cormier, who sometimes used the name Sebastian, another four times.

When Mr. Mason flew home on Aug. 6, Tina went to Mr. Cormier's in tears. Mr. Cormier tried to grope Tina's breast. "Just do me," one witness told the court she heard him say to the young girl. At one point, she hid in a bedroom to evade him. Later that night, she yelled at him when she found out he had sold her bike for marijuana and threatened to report Mr. Cormier for stealing a truck.

She called police two days before she disappeared. That call, recorded at 10:18 p.m., helped officers find Mr. Cormier. In court, it provided one of the trial's more wrenching moments. Ms. Favel broke down at the sound of Tina's voice. "Hey, um, I'd like to report a stolen truck," she tentatively begins, telling police her friend Sebastian had stolen a vehicle.

Tina didn't always recognize the dangers around her. Two days before she disappeared, she approached a stranger outside a halfway house and asked for a cigarette. She was homeless. She had no money and nowhere to go, she told the man through tears. The man, James Sango 64, told the court that he shushed her loudly and warned her such talk made her prey to those who stalk the vulnerable.

Before leaving, Tina shook Mr. Sango's hand: "I remember her teeny, little hand – it was so small. So tiny. She said her name was Tina."

On Aug. 8, 39 days after arriving in the Manitoba capital, she vanished.

Tears roll downtime cheeks of Thelma Favel, Tina Fontaine’s great-aunt and the woman who raised her

Turning points

Tina, weighing all of 72 pounds, was a tiny, wiry girl with bright, brown eyes and high cheekbones. That January, she turned 15, and it seemed that suddenly, the girl who liked collecting teddy bears and baking blueberry muffins began to leave that world behind.

What people did not see, what Tina Fontaine tried to keep hidden, was how broken the murder of her father, Eugene, had left her. On a cold, fall night in 2011, the 41-year-old who called Tina "little monkey" was beaten over several hours on the Sagkeeng First Nation, 115 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. Then he was tied up and left for dead. He had been stomped so hard a Nike swoosh imprinted on his chest. It was a detail Tina could not forget.

The sentencing hearing for the men who pleaded guilty to killing Eugene was scheduled for the fall of 2014. The harder Tina worked on the victim impact statement she was writing in the months leading up to it, the more frustrated and lost she seemed to become, says Ms. Favel, her great-aunt.

Over the winter, Tina began asking to visit Winnipeg, to get to know her mom, Valentina Duck, who had been largely absent from her life. In June, when Tina came home with an exceptional report card from École Powerview, with high marks in math and science, Ms. Favel relented, agreeing to a one-week visit. Tina left for Winnipeg on June 30, tucking the calling card and $60 her great-aunt had given in her pocket.

On Aug. 17, she was found tucked in the fetal position, wrapped in plastic, wearing pink high top runners. She was identified by the tattoo on her back: a pair of angel wings bearing her father's name.

Perhaps nothing in the past decade had embittered Indigenous peoples more than Canada's failure to address the staggering number of Indigenous women brutalized and lost to violence, and what those losses sowed: grief, shattered families, suicides and cycles of despair. Police were often slow to launch investigations, many of which were haphazardly carried out; and politicians just did not seem to care. Only three years ago, survivors, families of the dead and missing, and the wider Indigenous community had been galled to hear prime minister Stephen Harper say an inquiry into the issue was not "high" on "his radar."

It was the story of Tina, as she is universally known in Winnipeg, that broke the impasse. "A lot of people here fell in love with this little girl," said NDP MLA Bernadette Smith, an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women whose sister Claudette has been missing since 2008. "In Tina they saw their own daughter, their sister, their niece." Her fragility, her youth made it impossible not to understand the urgency of the call for a national inquiry.

Her death inspired several Indigenous grassroots movements, including the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg's North End, and Drag The Red, a volunteer organization formed to search the Red River in summer looking for missing people. "As we saw with Tina's case, water washes away the evidence, making it an almost perfect method of disposal," said Ms. Smith, a co-founder. "How many other bodies are out there? That river is full of secrets."

Family and supporters of Thelma Favel, Tina Fontaine’s great-aunt and the woman who raised her, marched on Friday, February 23, 2018, in Winnipeg.

It's been three and a half years since Tina's death; but Ms. Favel keeps a purple blanket pinned to her front window. Whenever Tina went out, she'd sit by the window to wait for her return. When she was late – which was not infrequent – she'd settle into her wooden rocking chair. "Uh, oh, you're in your grannie chair," Tina used to tease her. "I'm in trouble now!" She's scared to remove the blanket. Every time she'll look out the window she'll be searching for Tina. Photos of the 67 children Ms. Favel has fostered still line the walls of her tidy home in Powerview-Pine Falls, a hodgepodge of faces smiling down from frames of almost every colour. But Tina was her "baby."

For the Fontaine family, the pain has not ended. Last March, Tina's cousin was shot in the back of the head then set alight in Winnipeg, in a case of mistaken identity. Recently, Tina's uncle took his life. Tina is buried near him, on the craggy banks of the Winnipeg River behind Sagkeeng's Catholic Church, where the waterway bends. She and her dad were buried side by side. "Father and daughter reunited," their shared, marble headstone reads.

"Hold your family close," says Ms. Favel, who has called repeatedly for unity and love after the verdict. "Tell them every day how you feel. Show them more love. Hold onto them."

They have seen this anguish and rage before.

"We are being tested," said Anishinaabe Elder David Courchene Jr., known as Nii Gaani Aki Inini, Ojibway for Leading Earth Man. "Right now, we risk losing all clarity. That is what anger does." What happens in a courtroom is ultimately of little consequence, he says: "No one will escape the hurt they have caused another human being." From Tina's suffering, her violent death, we must instead be asking ourselves: What legacy does she leave? What is she trying to teach us?

"Putting a few Indians on a jury isn't going to solve anything," says Mr. Courchene, who comes from a long line of Sagkeeng chiefs. His father, David Courchene Sr. was Manitoba's first Grand Chief. "Her death is a wake-up call: We can't continue on this path. Ultimately, we can be part of something so much better – if we walk this together. Justice for Tina will come from all of us."

We have so much in common, he continued. The light that shines within each of us is no different, no better, no less than any other human. The answer, he said, is within each of us.

"The greatest protest in this context is love. Love your children. Teach them who they are because it will make them strong."

In Winnipeg, Tina's legacy cannot be overstated. She forced the Manitoba capital to acknowledge its inequities and the slow violence of institutional racism. Her death pulled the city together in a way it never had before, ultimately altering the course of its history. "Tina did all that," Ms. Favel says, with grief and awe. The awful truth is she deserved so much more.

"She is a hummingbird in motion, her wings emerald green," poet Gregory Scofield wrote shortly after the verdict, in a piece titled What the Justice System cannot take from Tina Fontaine. "She is floating, our baby sister, from ancestor to ancestor. She is drinking in stories. She is drinking in laughter. She is feasting with the Old Ones. She is feasting with her father, and she is well loved. She is well loved, our baby."

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