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Lana Fontaine, (R) is consoled by a family member as she weeps after the sentencing hearing of the two men convicted in the beating death of Eugene Fontaine in Winnipeg Manitoba, October 15, 2014.

LYLE STAFFORD/The Globe and Mail

Tina Fontaine's family gathered at a downtown Winnipeg hotel, preparing for what was bound to be an emotional afternoon in court the next day.

The family had journeyed from Sagkeeng First Nation, where Tina lived until this summer, when she was placed in Child and Family Services (CFS) care in the city.

But the Fontaines weren't in Winnipeg in relation to Tina's homicide investigation; they were here to attend the sentencing hearing for the two men who pleaded guilty to killing her father, Eugene Fontaine, in 2011.

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The stay at the Best Western Charter House hotel, which the family said was arranged by Victim Services, was an eerie reminder of their suffering: They were there for Wednesday's court date, but it's also where CFS placed Tina the night before she went missing one last time in August.

Tina's death, her family says, is inextricably linked with her father's killing. When details emerged about the beating earlier this year, she started drifting away – and running away. Thelma Favel, Tina's great aunt and the woman who raised her, put the girl in CFS care and just weeks later, Tina's body was pulled from the Red River.

"In my mind, [Jonathan] Starr and [Nicholas] Abraham killed two people that night," Ms. Favel said in her victim impact statement.

Wednesday's court hearing was dramatic. The two men cried and begged for forgiveness as their mothers and the Fontaine family sobbed.

"I'm so sorry," Mr. Abraham, his feet shackled, told the Fontaines before pausing to bury his face in his hands and bawl. "I really wish it could've been me instead of him. … If you give me another chance, I'll do good things. I promise."

The hearing was meant to deal with his and Mr. Starr's punishment. But with three broken aboriginal families listening as the lawyers described the gruesome beating and the killers' backgrounds, it also aired the much deeper problems plaguing Canada's native community: violence, substance abuse, traumatic experiences with the CFS system and the legacy of residential schools.

There was Mr. Fontaine's drug- and alcohol-fueled beating and its connection to his daughter's demise. There was Mr. Starr, whose mother and grandmother were sexually abused by the same priest in a Manitoba residential school. Mr. Starr, 32, who suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, spent time in the child welfare system – but not before seeing his mother stab his father in the stomach and his father run over his mother with a car.

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And then there was Mr. Abraham. His lawyer said he was "shunted back and forth" between foster families and his parents, who are both residential school survivors and have spent time in jail. Mr. Abraham, a 24-year-old recently diagnosed with ADHD, ultimately lived with his aunt and uncle, both of whom committed suicide amid addiction issues.

"[The presentencing report] tells a frankly sad tale of the background of Mr. Abraham – a background that is unfortunately not uncommon but perhaps predictable," said his lawyer, David Soper.

In arguing their sentencing requests – the prosecution wants 10 years minus time served, while the defence attorneys want roughly half that – the lawyers all referenced a Supreme Court ruling that says judges must consider aboriginal heritage when sentencing native offenders.

Crown attorney Michael Himmelman said the men's aboriginal status shouldn't be a major consideration since all three came from the same "tight-knit community" and yet only two people beat a man to death. Mr. Soper, however, took issue with Mr. Himmelman's assertion that his client chose to binge-drink in the lead-up to the killing.

"In the most technical sense, that may be true," he said. "But when you have a system and a history that has so failed … is it any surprise that they resort to substances to quell the pain? Can we really say it's a choice in the sense of, 'I chose to have a cheeseburger?' I say not."

Mr. Fontaine's sister, Lana Fontaine, was upset that the defence used Mr. Abraham's and Mr. Starr's pasts to argue for more lenient sentences.

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"They told us about them growing up with violence and residential schools," she said on the courthouse steps, adding that she doesn't forgive the men. "What does that have to do with my brother? Why did they have to kill my brother? It wasn't his fault."

The nearly three-hour hearing didn't bring the answers she and her family had hoped for: Justice Brenda Keyser deferred her sentencing decision to the end of the year.

"We wanted it over with," said Ms. Fontaine, who was among the last to see her niece alive in August. "We wanted closure so we can work on getting Tina justice."

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