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bearing witness

Tina Fontaine's aunt, Thelma Favel, holds her picture at her home on the Sagkeeng First Nation in Pine Falls Man.Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

There was nothing different about the evening of June 30. Thelma Favel, a revered matriarch and veteran foster parent, gathered her family in her rural Manitoba living room for nightly prayers. They asked for healing and protection.

The next morning, Ms. Favel embraced Tina Fontaine, the great-niece she raised as her own, and said goodbye. The 15-year-old was leaving the Powerview-Pine Falls home to visit her biological mother in Winnipeg, about 130 kilometres to the southwest. "She said, 'I'll see you in a week, Mama,'" Ms. Favel remembers. "I never thought anything of it. I never thought something like this would ever happen to her."

"Something like this" are Ms. Favel's words for homicide. Tina was found dead in Winnipeg's Red River on Aug. 17. When Ms. Favel got the news by phone at home, she went numb. She screamed for her husband of 35 years. "Joe!" she cried out. Then, as a result of a long-time disorder, she had a seizure. "When I came to, I said, 'Tell me it's not true,'" she recounted. "Joe said, 'I can't.'"

The dramatic recovery of Tina's body – police divers were looking for someone else when they happened upon her corpse, wrapped in plastic – immediately reignited calls for a national inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women. It also cast fresh scrutiny on the child-welfare system, since Tina had been voluntarily placed in Child and Family Services care shortly before her death. She died a ward of the province.

In Ms. Favel's words, "the system failed her." And the 56-year-old woman is familiar with the system. She has cared for 67 children over the past 30-odd years. Some came to her through formal foster-care arrangements, others came to her more informally – she raised her sister's three children, including Tina's father, for example. Most of the children she reared for various periods of time were aboriginal, but some were not. About half of her charges, she said, were fleeing broken homes rife with neglect and substance abuse. Some were hungry. All of them needed love.

Asked what it took to care for so many children, over so many years, the residential school survivor said: "If you're willing, you just have to open yourself, be willing to love somebody else's child, a child who is in need." The hardest part, she said, is saying goodbye.

In her care-giving, Ms. Favel has witnessed the challenges children face growing up in dysfunctional families. She also saw the cracks in the CFS system through which those children sometimes fall. She has watched as child after child is turned over to her because their parents had turned to drugs or alcohol.

She has heard of these same parents seeking treatment, only to be told there are no services on their reserve or that they must add their names to a waiting list. This past spring, she tried to get Tina into grief counselling for help dealing with the beating death of her father, but Ms. Favel said she was told support was contingent on being in CFS care. After Tina entered the provincial system, she was placed at a downtown Winnipeg hotel. The same fate befalls dozens of foster children on any given night.

The Manitoba government has announced it is taking action to reduce the number of hotel stays and overhaul its emergency-placement system, but Ms. Favel is skeptical. "I don't think they'll follow through," said the woman, who lost her father when she was six-years-old and was raised by her mother and an aunt.

She is speaking out now, no matter how painful it is, in the hopes that Tina's story will resonate with others – that it will compel parents to take responsibility for their families, spur improvements to the child-welfare system and inspire young women to seek support. "I hope it helps bring change," she said. "I hope it helps other girls down the road. I want them to reach out for help and not end up like my daughter."

Ms. Favel is today raising Tina's younger sister, Sarah, who is grappling with the loss of her sibling, her best friend. She is also raising two children with special needs. They have cycled through seven CFS workers in six years and have not been able to access the mental-health services they need, she said.

The pair will be the last of her foster children, she has decided. She is tired. She is tired of saying goodbye. She is tired from crying over Tina's death. She is tired from worrying that Sarah will hurt herself to numb the loss of first her father and her sister.

"It's time," Ms. Favel said. "It's time for me to take a moment for myself now."

Kathryn Blaze Carlson is a member of a team of Globe journalists reporting on Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women.