Content warning: sexual assault, violence, and death
The First Nations of Canada are rallying together for justice for a dead Indigenous teenager whose alleged murderer walks free.
In June 2014, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine left her home in Sagkeeng First Nation to visit her biological mother in Winnipeg. She was under the care of Children and Family Services (CFS) at a downtown hotel before disappearing on Aug. 9 after telling a private contract worker she was meeting friends to go shopping.
Eight days later, she was found dead, weighed down and wrapped up in a duvet cover in the Red River. Over a year later, Raymond Cormier—a man Fontaine and her boyfriend, Cody Mason, met while in Winnipeg—was charged with second-degree murder after six months of police investigation.
During the trial in Jan. 2018, Mason testified that he and Fontaine met Cormier earlier that summer while looking for a place to stay. Cormier took them to his home where he supplied Fontaine with alcohol and drugs. According to Cormier’s friends’ testimonies, he also sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions.
Three days before Fontaine went missing, witnesses saw her arguing with Cormier about a stolen truck that she reported to the police. Cormier claims it was the last time he saw her. That claim, however, was contradicted by witness Ernie DeWolfe, who says he met Cormier two days before Fontaine’s body was found. According to DeWolfe, Cormier said he had talked with Fontaine the previous day.
No cause of death was determined, as there was no evidence of injury or assault to Fontaine’s body, leading the prosecution to conclude she either died from suffocation or drowning. The defense argued that the combination of alcohol and drugs in her body contributed to her death, but only non-lethal levels alcohol and THC came up in lab tests, and it is unknown how long they were in her system before she died. Cormier’s DNA was not found on her body, but since the forensics estimated that Fontaine was in the river for three to seven days, water exposure may have quickly destroyed any such evidence.
“I drew the line and that’s why she got killed,” Cormier said in a recording from the police’s six month undercover investigation. This statement referenced Cormier’s discovery of Fontaine’s status as a minor. The prosecution then concluded he murdered her to avoid being linked to underage sex. Cormier was also found to have warned people in his apartment to not overdose or they would be wrapped up in carpet and thrown in the river. He even talked with his neighbor, an undercover cop, of his “three rules to crime: deny, deny, deny.”
The verdict prompted rallies throughout Canada calling for justice and an end to violence against Indigenous women and children, especially those like Fontaine: in the care of non-tribal child welfare services run by the state. Despite being in contact with paramedics, police and social workers days before she disappeared — and their knowing she was in contact with a man in his 50s — Fontaine wasn’t kept from harm’s way or from repeatedly running away from youth centers and hotels.
"The CFS system has definitely failed Tina Fontaine, the Winnipeg Police Services failed Tina Fontaine and Canadian society failed Tina Fontaine," said Kevin Hart, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Manitoba, to a crowd the day after the verdict. "Everybody right now across this country should be ashamed of themselves for the injustice that just occurred here."
Unfortunately, Fontaine’s case is far from the first of neglect and abuse against Indigenous girls. While Indigenous people only make up 4 percent of Canada’s population, they make up more than 50 percent of the country’s sex trafficking victims. Canada’s historical legacy of institutionalized violence toward Indigenous communities has birthed a criminal justice system that fails to protect the country’s original inhabitants when they need it. Seemingly, it is difficult for police to recognize why Indigenous women and girls are targeted, or why communities cannot heal and move on as the violence continues.
"We're still in a society that targets Indigenous women and girls,” said Diane Redsky, executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, which provides safe houses, rehabilitation and violence prevention programs for Indigenous women and children, to CNN. “In fact the national task force concluded that there's a market for Indigenous girls. What that leads to is a society who views Indigenous women as less than, and in fact of no human value."
On Feb. 26 2018, the Manitoba government called for a report into how CFS handled Fontaine before her disappearance and death. But under current law, the report can’t be released publicly. Even though a bill passed last year to allow CFS to do so, it has yet to be enacted, and the government didn’t commit to a time frame of when that would happen.
According to Daphne Penrose, Manitoba’s children’s advocate, her office is almost finished with investigation of the services provided to Fontaine.
As Tina’s community waits for answers, they march alongside those calling justice for Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Red Pheasant First Nations man who was shot after seeking help for a flat tire. The farmer who mistook Boushie for a burglar and killed him, Gerald Stanley, was found not guilty on Feb. 9 2018. Such tragedies reignited criticism of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was created to acknowledge and heal tensions between First Nations communities and non-Indigenous settler communities. The commission convened from June 2008 to Dec. 2015 to recognize the harm of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and work toward equality for Indigenous people.
“To me reconciliation is just a dirty word now,” said Rochelle Starr, a Metis activist, to Canada’s Metro News. “Ever since the TRC first came out, everything is getting worse. People are exhibiting more racism, the justice system as we know is totally corrupt. And our children are the ones being affected. People think we’re making progress … the reality is things are getting worse. There’s more kids in foster care right now than there ever was at the height of residential schools.”
Despite the TRC’s 94 calls to action to help Indigenous people, little has been done to resolve any issues, particularly the increasing number of Indigenous children in foster care which has been described as a “humanitarian crisis.” First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children under 14-years-old make up more than half of all children in Canada’s foster system, but they are purposefully underfunded compared to white provincial residents, and caretakers are either neglectful or opportunistic predators. A report by Representative for Children and Youth called Too Many Victims found that Indigenous children in British Columbia’s foster care were four times more likely to be sexually abused than non-Indigenous children, and two-thirds of them were Indigenous girls.
The foster care system becomes a pipeline for Indigenous children to end up homeless, imprisoned, sexually exploited, or dead, and blame is subtly shifted to the children. This is why Cormier’s defense focused on Fontaine’s drug and alcohol use and not the systems which didn’t care for her in the first place.
Canada’s efforts to help Indigenous communities are long overdue, and weak promises do nothing to save girls like Tina Fontaine from exploitation and death. The First Nations deserve to know why her safety net failed to protect her from a predator and why he was allowed to walk away free of his alleged crimes. If any progress is to be made to prevent more cases like Tina Fontaine’s, the systems meant to keep children safe must be re-examined.
To learn more about supporting Canadian Indigenous families and fight against sex trafficking, visit Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre’s site.