‘Why Are So Many of Our Girls Dying?’ Canada Grapples With Violence Against Indigenous Women

WINNIPEG — In the 24 hours before the disappearance of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Canada, she was seen by provincial child welfare workers, police officers and health care professionals.

Then she was found dead, dumped in Manitoba’s Red River, and wrapped in a plastic bag and duvet weighed down with 25 pounds of rocks.

“Canada and the system failed Tina at every step,” Thelma Favel, the great-aunt who raised her, said on a recent day from her small home in Powerview, a sleepy town on Lake Winnipeg near the reserve of the Sagkeeng First Nation. “Why are so many of our girls dying?”

Many in Canada have been asking that question.

Tina’s death in 2014 — and the acquittal of a white man in her killing — was one of an increasing number of deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls that has shocked Canadians in recent years. The violence galvanized the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to open a $54 million national inquiry three years ago that promised to get at the root causes of the violence.

Yet even before its release, the inquiry has been forcing a national reckoning.

Winnipeg, whose name is derived from the Cree words for “murky water,” has the largest Indigenous population in Canada.

That is where Tina Fontaine’s life came to an end.

Her history in many ways reflects the cycle of violence affecting Indigenous communities. Her paternal grandfather was sent to a residential school, and became an alcoholic. Her mother, who became a ward of the state as a child, eventually joined the sex trade.

Ms. Favel said the child was “doomed before she was born.” Her mother was 12 when she began dating her father, who was then 23. After their chaotic relationship fell apart and Tina’s father was afflicted with cancer, Tina and her sister Sarah went to live with her.

Ms. Favel said Tina was a happy girl who showed promise. She liked math and dancing, and television crime shows. She aspired to be a social worker.

But at 12, the girl’s father, who only had four months to live, was beaten to death in an argument with two men over $60.

Despairing, she began to skip school, smoke pot and cut herself. She got a tattoo with two angel wings and her father’s name on her back. When asked to write a victim’s impact statement during the trial of her father’s killers, she fell apart.

“She kept crumpling the paper and said she couldn’t do it,” recalled Ms. Favel, on whose living room wall hangs a painting of Tina, waifish with big brown eyes.

In June 2014, Tina left Ms. Favel’s home and went to Winnipeg, about 75 miles away, to visit her mother. Ms. Favel gave her $50 and a prepaid phone card, telling her to call if she wanted to come home. The call never came.

Instead, she said, the girl texted photographs of herself with a black eye to her sister, saying that their mother, who was working in the sex trade, had beaten her. Alarmed, Ms. Favel said she reached out to three Manitoba family services agencies, which bickered over who was responsible.

Eventually, Tina was placed by child and family services in a series of local motels, from which she ran away. She began living on the streets in Winnipeg’s impoverished north end.

A missing person’s report was filed with Winnipeg police. On two occasions on Aug. 1, 2014, she was turned away from city shelters, according to a March report by the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, which noted she was vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

On Aug. 8, Winnipeg police pulled over a truck in which Ms. Fontaine was riding with an intoxicated man. The girl was allowed to go despite being the subject of a missing person’s report.

Later that day, she was found unconscious in a back alley. After being hospitalized, testing positive for drugs and telling a case worker she was spending time with a much older drug user called Sebastian, she was discharged and placed at a Best Western Hotel in Winnipeg’s gritty downtown.

The advocate’s report noted that the child abuse unit of the Winnipeg Police should have intervened. Instead, Ms. Fontaine left the hotel on her own.

But the autopsy failed to determine cause of death and there was no evidence of sexual assault and no forensic evidence linking Mr. Cormier to the crime. In February 2018, Mr. Cormier was acquitted of second-degree murder, spawning outrage and protests across the country.

Visitors regularly pay tribute to Tina at a makeshift memorial of pink roses and photographs near the dock where her body was found. On a recent day, a card said: “sleeping beauty.”

Ms. Fontaine’s legacy is also felt in other ways.

After her death, volunteers routinely dredge the Red River looking for the bodies of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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