Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A familiar tragedy

For Tina Fontaine's family, the story of loss and grieving has repeated itself too often

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SAGKEENG FIRST NATION -- The drive from the edge of Winnipeg to Sagkeeng First Nation is only an hour-and-a-half, but the road stretches lifetimes for Tina Fontaine's family.

For them, it has become their own highway of tears.

Tina Fontaine isn't the first of her family to be found dumped and dead. But last Saturday, it was the funeral for the 15-year-old who has become the face of a call for a national inquiry into why so many aboriginal girls and women end up murdered or missing that sent a group of local and national reporters down the road to the community of 3,300.

"There's the family," a woman seated outside the church tells a group of journalists.

Tina's aunt, Elaine Turtle, is walking through the parking lot to St. Alexander Roman Catholic Parish Church, wearing a black T-shirt that features her niece's smiling face.

Nearly three decades ago, when she was Elaine Duck, she made the same walk for her sister.

In December 1987, the body of Cheryl Duck was discovered in a barren field near the northern outskirts of Winnipeg -- face down, front teeth broken, frozen to death.

Cheryl was also 15.

And like Tina, whose body was wrapped in plastic and dumped in the Red River, Cheryl was last seen alive in a part of the city that's dangerous for vulnerable aboriginal teenage girls.

"It's very sad for us," Elaine says. "We never knew it would happen to us like this again."

But, of course, it does happen again and again and...

 

-- -- --

The funeral, and the feast that followed are over, Tina's casket has been carried out to a waiting hearse, and inside the church a pretty local girl, in blue jeans, a white hoodie and a faux leopard top is standing expressionless in a doorway that leads outside.

A reporter asks what her name is.

"Destiny," she responds.

Destiny is Tina Fontaine's cousin.

She's also 15.

"Are you ever scared to go to Winnipeg?" the reporter asks.

"Sometimes," she says.

Her look, and her tone, seem devoid of emotion, even as she explains what, or more accurately, who scares her.

"Some guy, like in a blue truck, he's always following me around Sargent (Avenue) and Portage Place and stuff like that."

The girl goes on to describe the man in the truck: middle-aged, close-cropped white beard.

"He just parks somewhere and watches you."

And sometimes, she says, he rolls down the window and tries to lure her and her friends into the vehicle.

Did she tell the police?

"No."

Why not?

"Because I was a runaway at the time."

The girl's mother and grandmother are waiting outside in the church parking lot. Destiny hasn't told them the story about the man in the blue truck. Not that they would be surprised. Both her 34-year-old mother, Astra Thomas, and 66-year-old grandmother, May Thomas, have shared stories with Destiny about being attacked or abducted as younger women living in Winnipeg.

Astra and her six children lived in Winnipeg's West End until just over a year ago. But she felt Destiny wasn't safe there, so Astra decided to move them all back to the reserve. Destiny, her oldest, simply ran back to her old neighbourhood.

The last time was earlier this summer, and Astra only got her back by finding out from friends where her daughter was staying and calling police to pick her up.

Yet now, less than an hour after the funeral, as her mother and grandmother lecture Destiny about the danger of running away to Winnipeg, it's obvious Astra doesn't believe her daughter is getting the message Tina's murder so tragically retells for the family.

"She's the same age as you," Astra says. "Same family, hanging around in the same area that you've been hanging around, doing the same kind of things you were doing, and yet you still don't think it can happen to you?"

 

-- -- --

No prominent political figures -- certainly none who are calling for a national inquiry -- made the drive from Winnipeg to Sagkeeng for Tina Fontaine's funeral. But a pair of female Winnipeg Police Service officers, Shaunna Neufeld of the missing persons unit, and aboriginal liaison officer Edith Turner did; out of respect and out of uniform, on their own time.

If a national inquiry were called, they might have something to offer from their experience. But that's not who the reporter turned to for an answer.

He turned to the woman in the black Tina Fontaine T-shirt as she was entering the church. "Why do you think this is happening?" the reporter asked Elaine Turtle. "Why is it happening to your family?"

"It's probably just a matter of the Devil is working hard," she said, "The Devil is really working hard."

Maybe, the reporter thought to himself. But one thing is certain.

The rest of us aren't working hard enough to prevent it.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 B1

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