Charles Fontaine misses the days when his family was whole. He speaks of that time as if he can see it in his mind’s eye. But he was just a baby when he was separated from his parents and two sisters and placed in the foster-care system – an upbringing he describes as fraught with abandonment and with emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
In his 19 years, Mr. Fontaine has experienced such trauma that he cannot remember the good times; he has to close his tear-filled, bloodshot eyes and imagine them. In a rare interview, he told The Globe and Mail that the closest he has come to happiness and a sense of belonging was when he developed a relationship with his younger sister, Tina Fontaine, early last year.
Tina, 15, had been struggling with the details emerging in court related to the 2011 drug- and alcohol-fuelled beating death of their father, Eugene Fontaine.
The elder Mr. Fontaine, who was already dying of cancer when he was assaulted by two men, was found dead behind a shed on a rural Manitoba reserve. The first time the siblings met was at their father’s funeral.
In the spring of 2014, Tina started running away from her home in Powerview-Pine Falls, Man., where she had been living with her great-aunt, Thelma Favel, to spend time in Winnipeg. She wanted to find Charles again, he says, and connect with the piece of their father that had been missing. By July of last year, Ms. Favel had voluntarily placed Tina in Winnipeg’s foster-care system in the hope she would have greater access to support services. In the capital, though, Tina found drugs and sex work.
It is a life that Charles knows all too well. He is himself a meth abuser, using needles to inject the drug, and an escort. He says he and Tina talked about getting clean together, but they never got the chance to make a real go of it.
One year ago this coming Monday, Tina’s tiny body was pulled from the city’s Red River by police divers who happened upon her corpse, wrapped in plastic, when they were searching for someone else’s remains.
“This is a child that’s been murdered,” Sgt. John O’Donovan, of the Winnipeg Police Service, said in announcing her death .
“Society would be horrified if we found a litter of kittens or pups in the river in this condition. This is a child. Society should be horrified.”
Tina’s still-unsolved killing has reignited calls for a national inquiry into Canada’s murdered and missing indigenous women, spurred public scrutiny of the province’s child-welfare system, and highlighted the ways in which a struggling child can slip through the cracks. The last day the Sagkeeng First Nation teen was seen alive, she was in contact with paramedics, a Child and Family Services contract worker, and police, who did not take her into their care despite the fact that she was listed as a missing person.
The Fontaine story also serves as a reminder of how trauma can beget trauma, of how a death or disappearance can ripple through a victim’s family with devastating force.
Indigenous women in Canada are far more likely to die violently or go missing than non-indigenous women, and their loved ones, in turn, can find themselves grieving one death or disappearance after the next – an experience recounted to The Globe by families across the country.
When Ottawa-based researcher Maryanne Pearce was compiling her now widely cited list of all murdered and missing women in Canada, she was taken aback at how many of the indigenous victims were related to one another. Manitoba’s Osborne family lost Helen Betty Osborne, Claudette Osborne (missing since 2008) and Felicia Solomon. Sisters Laura and Bernadette Ahenakew were killed one year apart, both at age 22. Tina’s relative, Cheryl Duck, was found slain at age 15 in 1987. Ms. Pearce’s list goes on.
“That’s one of the things that struck me so intensely,” says Ms. Pearce, whose work helped to inform the RCMP’s unprecedented 2014 report that found 1,181 indigenous women were killed or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012. “I wondered, ‘How much can one family take?’”
Indigenous families have endured trauma over many generations – from colonization to the Sixties Scoop and the residential school system. The last of those, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently said, was central to a national policy aimed at committing “cultural genocide.” Families were torn apart. Children were abused, stripped of their self-worth and robbed of their identity. This deeply rooted trauma resonates today, amid a litany of social ills such as poverty, poor housing conditions and unemployment.
Abuse and instability in the home, experts say, can affect the childhood development of the brain, including such things as substance dependence, response to fear, impulse control and learning. “There are real neurologic reasons why folks exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviour,” California’s Dr. Nadine Burke Harris said in a recent TED talk that has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times.
As the anniversary of the discovery of Tina’s body approaches, Ms. Favel is confronting the harsh reality that the killing has rendered the girl’s loved ones – herself included – more conscious of their own mortality.
Ms. Favel, who agonizes over her decision to place Tina in care, has had suicidal thoughts. Amid the stress, her lifelong seizure disorder has worsened and she recently learned she has cancer for the second time. Tina’s younger sister, Sarah, who lives with Ms. Favel, has struggled with self-harm. In her pain, Sarah had to put her schooling on hold but hopes to resume her studies this fall. Ms. Favel is doing her utmost to ensure the girl, 15, survives and thrives despite the unimaginable hand she has been dealt so far (both women are seeing counsellors).
Charles’s drug use has intensified and he has tried to end his life. Adding to his stress, he recently learned, via Facebook, that he has a two-year-old daughter from a relationship he had when he was drinking heavily.
“This is not the life I wanted,” says Charles, who spoke with The Globe after picking up clean needles from a local health centre. “I wanted to be with my dad, with my mom, with my siblings. But I never got that. I don’t even believe in God any more. I believe in hell.”
The walls of the Sanderson home in Winnipeg are adorned with framed family photos – snapshots of a happier time, before all the death and unanswered questions. In the past four years, Betty-Ann and Oliver Sanderson have lost two sons, Clint and Dwight, a daughter named Jacqueline and Jacqueline’s daughter, Simone.
Simone was deeply affected by Clint’s 2011 death, which, at least in part, contributed to her ramped-up drug use, the Sandersons say. Simone was killed a little over one year later, her body found in a vacant lot in the city’s North End.
After the killing, Jacqueline’s and Dwight’s health deteriorated until they died, less than four months apart. The Sandersons say their pre-existing health conditions – a seizure disorder and a heart condition, respectively – were exacerbated by the loss of the 23-year-old woman and the stress of the police investigation (the case remains unsolved).
Now, the Sandersons are concerned about the long-term well-being of Simone’s five-year-old son and of her younger brother, who at age 11 has already lost a sister and his mother – half of his immediate family. “I worry about him,” Betty-Ann says of her grandson. “I don’t know how he’s going to turn out. Maybe one of these days it will really hit him.”
Dr. Gabor Maté, a retired physician and author who specializes in addiction, stress and childhood development, says it is critical that children feel safe and loved as they confront trauma, such as the loss of a family member. “Our world view is very much shaped by our early experiences,” says Dr. Maté, who spent more than a decade working with patients in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. “If you live in a world that’s supportive and nurturing, bad things may happen but you’ll have the sense you can handle it. But what if your sense of the world is that it’s dangerous, isolating, threatening and non-supportive? Then the death [of a loved one] is just further confirmation of what you’ve already learned.”
He pointed to a massive investigation in the U.S. that looked at the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and health outcomes later in life. ACEs include abuse, neglect, a parent suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, the incarceration of a family member, and divorce.
The study – carried out in the 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, and based on a survey of more than 17,000 adults – found that the more ACEs people reported on the questionnaire, the more likely they were to have developed mental and physical health conditions. Compared with a person scoring zero ACEs, someone with four ACEs, for example, is 4.5 times more likely to become depressed, 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs and 12 times more likely to make a suicide attempt.
Of course, people who score higher on the ACE test do not necessarily face addiction or mental illness, and both can exist in people who score few or no ACEs. Predisposition to certain conditions can be inherited, and some of the ACEs a child confronts may actually be symptomatic, for example, of a parent’s depression or addiction. Even still, the numbers are a sobering reminder that ACEs at least increase the risk of health problems.
“Adverse experiences don’t just add up, they actually multiply each other,” Dr. Maté explains. “The good thing is there are good people working hard everywhere I go. There are people who want to make a difference.”
Amid the tangles of loss, there are survivors working to break them.
Judy Maas and some of her siblings spent time in and out of the foster-care system in B.C., beginning with the Sixties Scoop, when child-welfare workers across the country removed thousands of indigenous children from their homes and placed them with non-indigenous families. She grew up around domestic violence and substance abuse. One of her brothers was murdered; another died on the streets, battling addiction. One of her sisters died of breast cancer. Another sister, 35-year-old Cynthia Maas, was slain by a serial killer in 2010 and found in a park in Prince George. One of her cousins was murdered. These days, she is concerned about another cousin, who was close to Cynthia, because the woman suffers from addiction and is “wandering the streets of Prince George.”
Despite all this – in fact, because of it – Ms. Maas has made it her life’s work to ensure that people like Cynthia, who was struggling with drug use, get the support they need to overcome addiction.
“Everyone entered their own hell,” Ms. Maas, a health director at Splatsin Health Services, on a B.C. reserve, said when discussing the impact of her sister’s killing on family members. “For me, it was about using my anger to make change.”
C.J. Julian, whose sister, Norma George, was found dead in an industrial area east of Vancouver in 1992, says she could well have become one of Canada’s murdered or missing indigenous women. After her sister was killed, Ms. Julian’s drug use accelerated and she did sex work to support her habit. She spent time at serial killer Robert Pickton’s farm and ran away from there once, in 1994. Today, she is committed to maintaining her sobriety and works at a Vancouver non-profit serving those with addiction and mental-health issues.
“I know that if I was to drink and use again, there’s a good chance that … I will die from a drug overdose or be murdered by some unknown person,” says Ms. Julian, who was the last in her family to see her sister alive, in the Downtown Eastside. “I feel like Norma is my angel now.”
On a rainy morning on the banks of the Red River earlier this month, Charles Fontaine happened to meet the Sandersons for the first time. The couple was in the area and saw a small group near the makeshift memorial honouring Tina – a pile of painted rocks, figurines, flowers and red ribbons – that still stands at the Alexander Docks despite the construction there.
The pair approached and were soon introduced to Tina’s brother, who was among those gathered on the bank. It was a fated meeting, the couple believes, of two families wrestling with the fallout of unsolved killings. “I said, ‘I’m sorry about your sister,’” Betty-Ann recalls. “I told him it’s a terrible thing that this happens to our native girls … There was a connection [between us] right away – a sadness, a frustration, wanting answers.”
Mr. Fontaine, for his part, says he sometimes dreams Tina is still alive; sometimes he wakes up forgetting she was killed. If he could have another moment with her, he says, he would tell her he loves her and that he will always miss her. He would tell her: “You’re gone to somewhere you can be safe, where you don’t have to go through suffering and pain. And besides, you’re with Dad again.”
Mr. Fontaine says he now wants to try to be there for his sister, Sarah, but he knows he first needs to stop using. He was clean for three months until earlier this summer, he says, when he broke down at the news he had unknowingly fathered a child.
“People don’t understand the pain,” Mr. Fontaine says of the loss and tumult he has faced, lifting up the sleeve of his black jacket to reveal scars on his forearm from cutting. “I dream to finally be happy … I always have to pretend to laugh.”
He does not know how he will mark the anniversary of his sister’s death, but at Sagkeeng, a headstone for Tina and Eugene is to be erected Monday. The two were laid to rest at the same site, with Tina’s ashes in an urn atop her father’s grave.
Last weekend marked one year since Tina was last seen – a milestone that hit Ms. Favel hard because, after all this time, she has so few answers. She does not know when or how Tina died. She wants to know so many things, so badly, including details only the killer would know. As Tina drew her last breaths, the woman wonders, was she calling out for Ms. Favel’s husband to protect her?
“To this day, I can’t open my curtains because I still wait for Tina to come down the road,” she says. “I dream that I’ll wake up and she’ll be here and Eugene will be here. Both their deaths have really impacted my soul – and everybody in my family.”
With a report from John Woods
Kathryn Blaze Baum is a national reporter with The Globe and Mail.