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The night before Tina Fontaine left home for the last time, her family gathered in a circle in their living room to pray, a nightly tradition of uttering the Our Father and asking for healing and protection.
That was June 31, the eve of the 15-year-old’s journey to Winnipeg for a visit with her estranged mother. The next day, the aunt who had for a decade raised Tina as her own, Thelma Favel, sent her out the door with $60 cash, calling cards, a pack of cigarettes and a hug.
With that, Tina was on the road with a relative, passing over Devil’s Creek and Brokenhead River as the prairie grass disappeared in the rearview mirror.
“I let her go [to Winnipeg], and that’s the worst mistake I’ve ever made,” Ms. Favel said in a sit-down interview at her Powerview-Pine Falls home, where Tina grew up. “I’ll never hear her voice again, never see her beautiful smile.”
On either side of the living room, prayer candles flicker beside framed school photos: one of Tina not long before her cancer-stricken father’s 2011 beating death, the other taken just months before the teen’s body was pulled from the muddy waters of Winnipeg’s Red River on Aug. 17.
Tina’s life and mysterious death have become a galvanizing force in the fight for a national inquiry into the more than 1,100 aboriginal women who have died or gone missing in the past three decades. In the words of Winnipeg Police Service’s aboriginal liaison officer, Patrol Sergeant Edith Turner, the women’s tears would form a river spanning the nation.
Tina’s family wants Canadians to see the petite teen as more than a statistic. Half of Manitoba’s female murder victims between 1980 and 2012 were aboriginal, but Tina had a story of her own.
She loved math and science and made her schoolmates laugh. She was supposed to start Grade 10 in the fall. She had just finished a babysitting course and some day wanted to work with children. She was reading her driver’s handbook in anticipation of her 16th birthday. She was shy, but sometimes let loose and danced in her living room.
In the days since her body was found, family and friends have offered a complex picture of the girl. It’s a familiar story of a young aboriginal woman whose life was marked by trauma and instability, leaving her vulnerable to a tragic end.
Her mother left her as a toddler, but had recently come back into her life. She’d been struggling with the violent details emerging from the court case into the slaying of her father, Eugene Fontaine, but refused to accept what little professional help Ms. Favel was able to arrange.
She had run away several times before her latest disappearance in August, but signalled a couple of weeks ago that she wanted to return soon to Powerview-Pine Falls. Her last text to her 14-year-old sister, Sarah, said: “Tell mama and papa I love them and I miss them, but I’m not ready to go home yet” – a reference to Ms. Favel and her husband, Joseph Favel.
Hundreds turned out for Tuesday evening’s vigil, held on the Alexander Docks near where Tina was found by police divers who were actually looking for another person when they happened upon her body, wrapped in plastic.
Across the country, the high-profile case has prompted renewed calls from the Assembly of First Nations, Manitoba’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the federal NDP for a federal inquiry.
Winnipeg police Sergeant John O’Donovan expressed frustration in announcing her death Monday. “Society would be horrified if we found a litter of kittens or pups in the river in this condition.” he said. “This is a child. Society should be horrified.”
But the Conservative government has rebuffed the appeals, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper drawing criticism this week for saying Tina’s death is first and foremost a crime – not part of a “sociological phenomenon” requiring further study. In an interview with The Canadian Press, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said that “for Stephen Harper to say that there’s not a systemic aspect to this, I think is just – I think it’s outrageous, quite frankly.”
Tina’s death has raised some very complex questions, specifically around what former judge Ted Hughes has described as the “gross disproportion” of aboriginal children and youth in the care of provincial government agencies. In her short life, Tina was twice briefly in the care of Manitoba’s Child and Family Services; she was in the system in the weeks before she was reported missing Aug. 9.
“I reached out for help, and thought I was doing something good,” Ms. Favel said of voluntarily placing Tina in CFS care in Winnipeg, “But now I don’t have my baby.”
The ripple effects of Tina’s death are now being felt throughout the police service and the Sagkeeng First Nation community, whose acting chief, D.M Henderson, said he was “in shock.”
It’s also taking a toll on her sister, Sarah. At the vigil Tuesday, she clutched wildflowers as tears streamed down her round cheeks. “I can’t believe your [sic] actually gone,” she later wrote on her Facebook page.
Saturday afternoon’s funeral service at the re-serve’s St. Alexander Roman Catholic Parish will serve as a reminder of a life cut short, dreams not lived and what University of Winnipeg aboriginal studies professor Niigaan Sinclair calls the “largest epidemic” plaguing this country: the murder and disappearance of Canada’s aboriginal girls and women.
‘The system failed her’
On the first day of 1999, Tina was born at the Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg to Eugene Fontaine, of Sagkeeng, and Valentina Duck, a Bloodvein First Nation woman. “She was a New Year’s baby,” Ms. Duck, 33, told The Globe and Mail.
The couple, who met at a Winnipeg house party when Ms. Duck was 12 years old, already had a three-year-old son named Charles. One year after Tina’s birth, they had Sarah.
Ms. Duck fell into alcoholism and left her children with Mr. Fontaine, who worked at a tire recycling facility, when the girls were barely toddlers. Mr. Fontaine tried to raise them on his own in the city, but when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he reached out to his older sister, Ms. Favel, for help.
He needed someone he trusted to look after Tina, whom he nicknamed Monkey, and little Sarah, whom he lovingly called Chubby. When he let his girls go, he believed it was temporary – that some day he’d care for them himself once more.
In a handwritten letter dated Nov. 21, 2003, he wrote: “I, Eugene R. Fontaine, give Thelma Favel temporary custody of my daughters Tina Michelle Fontaine and Sarah Mae Fontaine until [future] notice. This is until I am ready to take them back.”
Mr. Fontaine never got that chance. He died from an Oct. 31, 2011, beating that cut his life just short of the four months doctors had told him he had left to live.
Ms. Favel said the girls briefly came under CFS supervision after she assumed custody, living with her on the reserve. Skeptical of CFS, she decided to take them out of the system after about six months, despite it meaning she wouldn’t get financial help to raise the girls.
“I wanted them to be mine,” said Ms. Favel, who is also raising Tina and Sarah’s two cousins. “Kids in care sometimes fall through the cracks.”
But after Tina started struggling with her father’s brutal slaying and her newfound relationship with Ms. Duck, Ms. Favel turned to CFS for help. In July, Ms. Favel called and asked that Tina be placed in short-term provincial care. She said she wanted Tina to have access to counselling; she thought the girl might be more safe.
Ms. Favel is under the impression Tina then lived on and off with a foster family in the city, though she isn’t sure. She said a CFS worker reported Tina missing Aug. 9 after she said the teen had already been “AWOL” from care for two weeks.
“The system failed her,” Ms. Favel said.
Manitoba’s Office of the Children’s Advocate is investigating the public services Tina received as part of an automatic review that occurs whenever a child in care dies. The results of the review, including any recommendations aimed at preventing future tragedies, must remain confidential under current provincial legislation.
Two CFS workers, including a man Ms. Favel said tried to help secure grief counselling for Tina, were among those who streamed into the Favel home delivering food ahead of the teen’s wake. Both the man and his supervisor declined to answer questions, referring The Globe to the their communications office.
A turning point: ‘I’m lonely. I miss Daddy.’
Growing up on Louis Riel Drive in Powerview-Pine Falls, Tina did household chores – tidying her room and doing the dinner dishes – to earn her weekly $20 allowance. She also made Ms. Favel laugh with her singular love of iceberg lettuce.
“I used to have to buy an extra head every time I made salad,” she recalled with a smile. “She’d walk around the house eating the layers.”
But emotions also ran high at the Favel home. The day of Mr. Fontaine’s funeral, Ms. Duck called her daughters for the first time since the girls could remember, Ms. Favel said. Tina was hit hard by the reality of burying her father, whose framed picture still sits on her bedside table.
But it wasn’t really until three years later that his death started affecting her behaviour, said Ms. Favel and Bryan Favel, Tina’s 29-year-old uncle who was raised as her brother.
The court proceedings were under way last spring, and Tina wanted to go with Ms. Favel to hear the case. Ms. Favel resisted, saying the teen shouldn’t remember her father by his violent killing.
However, Ms. Favel believes Tina overheard her one night relaying to her husband the details of the beating, including that Mr. Fontaine’s torso had been stomped so hard that a Nike checkmark was visible on his bare chest.
That’s when everything seemed to change.
“We’d be watching TV and she’d come sit beside me and say, ‘Mama, I’m lonely. I miss Daddy,’” she said. “She would cry and then when she was done, she’d say, ‘Okay, I’m good now.’”
But Ms. Favel and Bryan Favel knew she wasn’t okay. Ms. Favel said she tried to get Tina into counselling – reaching out to CFS and the province’s Victim Services – only to have “doors shut” in her face and find that Tina was unwilling to get professional help.
Tina had been attending the nearby Ecole Powerview, where she was slated to enter Grade 10 in September. Her cousin, Shauna Bruyère, said Tina was most often seen at school with her sister, and recently cried on the cousin’s shoulder, saying she didn’t want to be living at home.
Ms. Favel said Tina wasn’t having issues at school, though she said there were times the teen got into minor trouble for arriving late to class after lunch, usually because she had dilly-dallied back from a nearby convenience store with friends.
A schoolmate and friend, Tarya Pakoo, described Tina as “funny,” but they also had serious conversations, including one in which Tarya implored her friend not to run away.
‘My God, what is happening here?’
Tina ran away twice last spring and didn’t return to Powerview-Pine Falls after what was supposed to be a five-day visit with Ms. Duck in early July. Bryan Favel drove the teen into the city’s north end and soon got the sense something was amiss when Ms. Duck wasn’t at her sister’s home, as Tina had thought.
Tina assured Bryan Favel everything would be fine and that she could stay with her aunt until her mother returned. Despite his unease, he relented.
“I told her not to walk the streets at night, and if she needed anything, to call me,” he said. “She said, ‘I love you.’ I said, ‘I love you, too.’ And then I left her.”
Ms. Duck said she spent the better part of the week with Tina, watching movies and going to bingo at a local hall. She also said she met her daughter’s boyfriend, Cody, who posted a picture of himself with Tina on Facebook on July 10. He didn’t respond to an interview request.
Ms. Favel has said publicly she thinks Ms. Duck was doing drugs with her daughter; Ms. Duck said the pair “only smoked marijuana” together.
When Ms. Favel couldn’t reach Tina, she reported her missing on July 10. A week later, the RCMP issued a release saying Tina had been located. Ms. Favel said most times police found Tina she was at Portage Place, the city’s downtown mall.
Ms. Duck said she doesn’t know where her daughter spent her final days, but thinks she was sometimes staying in a foster home and sometimes at her aunt’s in the city.
Police have revealed few details of the case, but Constable Jason Michalyshen said investigators believe the teen was “a vulnerable young lady and someone that would be easily exploited by certain individuals.” He wouldn’t say whether Tina had been involved in the sex trade. Ms. Duck, who once worked as a prostitute, said she’s certain her daughter was not a sex worker.
After police found Tina’s body, Justice Minister Peter MacKay offered his condolences to the Fontaine family. The Prime Minister did the same a few days later. Ms. Favel said the words mean nothing.
“[The government] is just putting it aside until another poor woman is found murdered, and then they’ll open their mouths and say, ‘We’re going to try to do this, we’re going to try to do that,’” she said. “But nothing is ever really done.”
Still, local activist Leslie Spillett said she’s hopeful Tina’s death might be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
“Maybe it’s that threshold where people kind of wake up and say, ‘My God, what is happening here?’” said Ms. Spillett, executive director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, a social development organization.
The issue is on the lips of those living on the Sagkeeng reserve, where one resident said Tina’s former teachers were overheard at a fundraiser lamenting her death. Gloria Spence, a 49-year-old woman who grew up on the streets of Winnipeg but returned to Sagkeeng in the 1980s, said she believes the problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women has gotten worse over the years.
“In my younger days, it wasn’t an everyday-type thing,” said Ms. Spence, who was hosting a yard sale in the reserve this week. “Now, it seems like it’s constant.”
Patrol Sgt. Turner, whose own mother was reportedly a residential school survivor, said Winnipeg police met with local aboriginal leaders, including Sagkeeng’s acting chief, in the aftermath of Tina’s death.
With a trembling voice, she told those gathered at Tuesday’s vigil that everyone agreed on the importance of working together to end the plight of Canada’s so-called stolen sisters.
For Ms. Favel, though, it’s too late. She and her husband have arrangements to make and a funeral service to attend. In the coming days, she’ll scatter Tina’s ashes atop Mr. Fontaine’s grave. She knows today’s steady flow of family and friends into her home won’t last forever. She knows it will only get harder.
“Everything settles down,” she said, “and then you’re all alone.”
With a report from Jill Mahoney in Toronto