Skip to main content

Heartbreak. Horror. Fury. Desperation. No one word adequately describes the emotions that surface when considering the life and death of Tina Fontaine.

The 15-year-old Manitoba girl died in 2014, her 77-pound  body pulled out of Winnipeg's Red River attached to 11.5 kg of rocks. A trial began this week for Raymond Cormier, the 55-year-old man charged with murdering her.

In pictures, her sweet face is plump, smooth and painfully young. But Tina was never allowed to be innocent, her life stained by the systemic prejudice and inter-generational trauma that relentlessly chases Indigenous people in Canada.

Missing, mourned, unresolved: Cormier's acquittal leaves Tina Fontaine's family searching for answers

From the archives: Fontaine anniversary a reminder trauma begets trauma

Read more: Missing and murdered indigenous women: A primer

Her mother had Tina as a teenager, then disappeared into alcohol abuse. Her father had terminal cancer, so Tina and her younger sister were raised largely by her great-aunt Thelma Favel, foster mother to dozens.

Since Tina's death, her cousin Jeanenne was shot and killed, while her brother Charles coped with his own demons using methamphetamine bought with the proceeds of sex work.

It was the beating death of their sick father, Eugene, which sent both teenagers down a dark spiral. Tina, who was Anishinaabe and a member of Sagkeeng First Nation, began leaving Ms. Favel's rural home for Winnipeg, in part to reconnect with her mother.

Ms. Favel put her into foster care hoping that she'd get help coping with the death of her father, whose name she had tattooed between her shoulder blades, with angel wings. Instead, Manitoba Child and Family Services put her up in a hotel, monitored mainly by workers on contract.

Death hasn't brought Tina any more respect. Criminal trials can be a nauseatingly detailed process, made more so by the stultifying language and procedural details that define them. It's too easy for journalists, lawyers and court staff to forget that it isn't just bodies, or profiles, they're dealing with, but real people who are still loved.

This week, the court heard about the autopsy conducted on Tina's battered body, which required taking samples of the fluid held in her tiny chest. This is, in part, because Mr. Cormier's defence team is arguing that it was drugs, not him, that killed her.

It was an especially bad week to be seen as blaming the victim, one filled with news of dead brown-skinned bodies: Tina; young Cree man Colten Boushie, shot in Saskatchewan in 2016; the north African victims of last year's Quebec City mosque massacre; and the Middle Eastern and South Asian men who allegedly died at the hands of Bruce McArthur in Toronto.

Yet multiple news outlets, including The Globe, used headlines highlighting Tina's substance use without contextualizing that it was being scrutinized on the request of Mr. Cormier, the one whose actions are actually on trial.

Drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana are common, after all, and that Tina was also getting high on prescription drugs only highlights how in need of help she was.

Yet all of our systems failed her: the last day she was seen alive, she was in touch with paramedics, Child and Family Services and police, who did not take her into their care even though she was listed as a missing person.

For a brief moment after Tina's death, it seemed like Canada had finally been shamed into action. Manitoba's former NDP government pledged to stop housing foster children in hotels except in "exceptional circumstances," and track the use of these rooms. Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government formed the long-awaited inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

But last year, Manitoba's Conservative government declared that "hotel use is not tracked as it is not permitted," a bit of doublespeak that only says that it doesn't bother to check up on the children in its care.

The MMIWG inquiry has been dogged from the start with allegations of disorganization and disrespecting families – it's been shedding staff like old skin, yet the federal Liberals are resisting calls to restart and reconfigure it.

News of its crumbling is interspersed with news of the deaths of other Indigenous women across Canada, including 19-year-old Serena McKay, also of Sagkeeng First Nation, last April. Indigenous young people are still being robbed of their chances: on Thursday, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued its fourth non-compliance order against the federal government for failing to adequately fund First Nations children.

Nothing has changed since Tina – who Ms. Favel described as "sparkling" from the witness stand this week – had her life stolen. Meanwhile, the trial for her alleged murderer continues, each excruciating detail contributing to the indignity she suffers, even in death.

In 2014 when Tina Fontaine was found dead in the Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba, her great aunt Thelma Favel struggled to accept Tina's treatment in the care of Manitoba's Child and Family Services.

Interact with The Globe