May 22, 2015


Local

Families relive loss of loved ones after teen's body found in river

Discovery opens old wounds

Tina Fontaine, 15, is no longer missing. But the discovery of her body in the Red River has reignited the despair felt by families of other aboriginal women who are missing and feared murdered.

When the girl's identity was publicized on Monday, the Ka Ni Kanichihk centre immediately received phone calls from people inquiring about aboriginal women.

Tina Fontaine told a friend she ran away from homes in which she had been placed because she didn’t feel loved.

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Tina Fontaine told a friend she ran away from homes in which she had been placed because she didn’t feel loved.

Tina Fontaine's body is pulled from the Red River Sunday.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tina Fontaine's body is pulled from the Red River Sunday. Photo Store

"When this happens, it has a profound impact on the families. First they think 'Is it my girl?' " said the centre's founder, Leslie Spillett.

The fears of relatives of missing girls can be triggered when they hear about a body being recovered, she said.

"They start living that experience. They (have to) reach out to people who have some awareness and compassion," she said.

'When they find a body, my anxiety is so high. In the back of my mind, I don't want it to be my loved one because I'm hoping she's still alive'

-- Susan Caribou

The death of Fontaine, who had been in the care of Child and Family Services, adds to the staggering number of murdered or missing aboriginal women. Though the exact number of unsolved cases is difficult to determine, a previous Free Press investigation, with research from Ottawa doctoral student Maryanne Pearce, documented 58 in Manitoba.

For Fontaine's friends, though, her death is more than a statistic.

Fontaine was reported missing after last being seen in downtown Winnipeg Aug. 8. She had been in CFS care for about a month.

Tarya Pakoo, 12, who said Monday evening Fontaine was her best friend, remembered how Fontaine liked to make people laugh. The two of them did everything together, and when Pakoo found out Fontaine had died, she said she broke down with sadness and anger. "I told her not to run away, and she promised me she wouldn't," Pakoo said.

Witnesses said her body was wrapped in a bag when police pulled it out of the river at the Alexander Docks Sunday afternoon. A man and his 12-year-old son found the body around 1:30 p.m. Police confirmed later Sunday the discovery of Fontaine's body was being treated as a homicide. They said her body was wrapped in a way she couldn't have done herself, indicating she was dead before she was put in the river.

"It's obvious this child didn't put herself in the river in that condition," Sgt. John O'Donovan said at a news conference.

O'Donovan confirmed Fontaine had been in care of CFS in Winnipeg for about a month before she went missing. Police suspected she had run away from care, as she had previously done a couple of times.

Pakoo said Fontaine told her she would run away to escape a place where she didn't feel loved.

"No one at that house loved her and she didn't want to feel sad anymore," Pakoo said in a message.

O'Donovan said Fontaine was taken advantage of when she ran away.

"She was barely in the city for little over a month. She was definitely being exploited," O'Donovan said.

Susan Caribou, who had several female relatives of hers murdered, said her grief was felt again with the discovery of Fontaine's body. Caribou's cousin, Carolyn Sinclair, was killed by Shawn Lamb, who is serving an 18-year sentence for Sinclair's death as well as the death of one other woman. Caribou's niece, Tanya Nepinak, was also murdered, but her body was never found.

Caribou said when she heard about a body found wrapped in plastic, she had immediate flashbacks to Sinclair, who was found in a similar way, as well as her niece.

"I thought of my niece right away. I thought 'Oh my god, maybe finally it's Tanya,' " she said.

For many women with dead or missing relatives, Caribou said closure, often in the form of a body, is vital.

"I feel empty inside when I don't have that closure. When they find a body, my anxiety is so high. In the back of my mind, I don't want it to be my loved one because I'm hoping she's still alive. I have real mixed emotions," Caribou said.

Matt Williamson, a government spokesman, said officials with the Department of Family Services were investigating the case and had no comment at this point.

Nahanni Fontaine, special adviser to the province on aboriginal women's issues, offered her "absolute sincere condolences" to the girl's family.

"It's just an absolutely sad and tragic day today," said Nahanni Fontaine, who has helped the province make the case for a national public inquiry on murdered and missing aboriginal girls and women. So far, the federal government has refused to call such an inquiry.

While the girl's family is undoubtedly going through hell, she said, the tragedy is also being felt throughout the aboriginal community and by Manitobans in general.

"When you see something so tragic and so senseless, it really just kind of solidifies that call for action on a national inquiry," Nahanni Fontaine said.

oliver.sachgau@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2014 A3

History

Updated on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 7:14 AM CDT: Replaces photo

7:24 AM: adds video

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