‘I wonder if she called for me’ Grief and pain are constant companions for Janet Bruyere, whose teenage granddaughter was viciously slain 16 years ago
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SAGKEENG FIRST NATION — There is an ache in Janet Bruyere’s heart that won’t go away; a void that keeps her up at night while the rest of her family sleeps in their modest home on this First Nation.
“I have dreams about her,” Bruyere, 72, says of her granddaughter, Fonassa Bruyere.
She sits at her dining-room table while her two young grandsons play underfoot. Cartoons blare in the background, catching the children’s attention for moments at a time before the curious boys return their gaze to their grandmother.
“I can’t sleep that much. Not since it happened,” the residential and day school survivor told the Free Press. “When I do, sometimes I have nightmares.”
Fonassa, 17, was last seen getting into a car in Winnipeg on Aug. 9, 2007. Later that month, her body was discovered in a field northwest of the city — stabbed 17 times. No one has ever been arrested or charged in her slaying.
She is one of Canada’s estimated 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, another face to the national tragedy again drawing attention to Winnipeg in the wake of questions surrounding the remains of those believed slain and dumped in landfills.
Fonassa, born smack-dab in the middle of a large, extended family, was loved fiercely and returned that love effortlessly. The teen with a high-pitched voice and friendly personality was always singing and cracking jokes.
Though small in stature at just 90 pounds, Fonassa had an enormous heart, her grandmother says, adding she was an empathetic soul who used to write poems and had hopes and dreams to one day become a mother. Her spirit name was Walking with Bears.
It has been almost 16 years since Fonassa disappeared from a Winnipeg street on a warm summer night.
She was with her sister on Aikins Street near Selkirk Avenue when they were approached by a vehicle. Fonassa got in with an unknown man and drove away into the night. She was wearing shorts, white sneakers, a hoodie and a men’s watch that had been given to her by her mother.
A few days passed. Nobody heard from Fonassa.
It was unlike her to not check in. No matter where she was, or how her life was going, she always stayed connected, her family says.
Fonassa’s cousin, Crystal McLean, became worried. She notified Janet Bruyere (the woman who raised her, who she calls “Mom”) that something was wrong. Fonassa’s connection had been severed.
The silence was deafening. Crystal and Janet instantly feared the worst.
Fonassa had spent years of her life in and out of foster care. She frequently ran away from her group home, often back to her family. Because all she ever wanted was to be with her family, Crystal said.
Like many teenagers, she had a rebellious streak. She was on the cusp of adulthood, but still just a kid.
She was street-smart, but naïve, and fell in with people who took advantage of her vulnerability. She struggled with addiction and was sexually exploited.
Her family worried about her.
When she was a little girl, Fonassa’s favourite thing was to play with her dolls. Back then, Janet would take Fonassa, Crystal, and the other kids to the Freight House on Isabel Street, where they’d set up a picnic lunch in their usual spot — under the third tree near the building — and spend warm summer afternoons eating and splashing around in the pool. These are some of their happiest memories.
Things changed when Fonassa became a teenager.
The last time Janet and Crystal saw Fonassa was on July 28, when she came around the house on Alexander Avenue with a doughnut and a candle and sang Happy Birthday to her granny.
About two months before that, Janet ran into Fonassa on Selkirk Avenue near Parr Street. She told her granddaughter that she needed to be careful.
“Someday you’re going to need me, and you’re going to call for me, and I’m not going to be able to save you,” she warned.
Fonassa didn’t say anything.
”They told us they weren’t going to look for her because she was just another street person out there doing drugs.”–Crystal McLean
Janet and Crystal went to police to report Fonassa missing but were told that the young girl was probably just out on a binge. Janet says they tried to report the girl missing more than once, but that nobody took them seriously.
Crystal says Fonassa’s addiction and the fact that she was a street person overshadowed her case.
“They used that against her case because she’s a runaway, that’s why she’s gone missing. ‘She’s probably somewhere doing drugs and she’ll come back when she’s done,’ — that’s what the cops told my mom. They told us they weren’t going to look for her because she was just another street person out there doing drugs,” she says.
“They didn’t even offer my mom an incident number. They just told her that she was a runaway and she’ll come home. It was hard for us. We felt helpless. The only one person to help us was (NDP MLA) Nahanni Fontaine.”
At the time, Fontaine was the special adviser on aboriginal women’s issues to the province.
Family members searched for Fonassa. They printed out missing posters with the help of Childfind Manitoba. They walked long stretches in areas where she had previously hung out.
They banged on doors at known drug houses, including one on Burrows Avenue Fonassa had been known to frequent. It was known as a place where men would give teenage girls crack cocaine. Some of the girls traded sex for drugs.
They searched for nearly four weeks, desperately trying to hold on to hope. But the dark feeling that filled their insides was growing.
Then two police detectives visited Janet’s home and asked the family to identify a watch — the one Fonassa wore every day.
“At that time when the detectives came, I knew something was wrong,” Janet says. “My son was going to go look in garbage bins, or down the (river) bank when they gave us the news.”
Fonassa’s body was found Aug. 30, 2007, near Ritchie Street and Mollard Road at the northern edge of the city. The family says she had been raped and stabbed 17 times, and that she had DNA under her nails and hair between her fingers.
“She fought back,” Crystal says, adding that she wonders if it was one person, or more, who assaulted her and took her life.
“They just disposed of her like a piece of garbage.”–Crystal McLean
“They just threw her away like a piece of garbage after they were done… they just disposed of her like a piece of garbage.”
Janet is haunted by the thought of her granddaughter’s final moments.
“I used to talk to her and talk to her — I talked to her all the time. When that happened to her, she must have thought about what I said to her,” Janet says, looking up at a framed photo of the smiling girl above the stove in her kitchen on the First Nation.
She and Crystal moved back to Sagkeeng a few weeks after Fonassa’s slaying. It has been their home since.
There are reminders of Fonassa throughout the house. Pictures on the walls, two stained-glass red dresses that hang from the windows and memorial candles on the table. There are other candles, along with photos of Bruyere’s late brother and cousins.
“I wonder if she called for me when that happened to her,” Janet says.
Nearly 16 years later, the pain is ever-present. The tragedy irreparably damaged the once close-knit family, tearing it apart.
Fonassa’s brother Matthew struggled with mental-health issues and fell into addiction. He struggled for several years and died from an overdose late last year.
The person or people who killed Fonassa and dumped her nude body in that field are probably still out there. There are, as far as the family knows, no suspects or leads; they say they haven’t had an update from police in four years.
Fonassa’s file has been moved back to the Winnipeg Police Service, which pulled out of Project Devote, a joint task force with the RCMP investigating MMIWG cases, in 2020.
“The last person I talked to said police have the documents in the station, I guess. They went back to the station, but that’s why I’m all confused because I don’t know who to talk to anymore,” Janet says.
Winnipeg police say it remains “an open investigation.”
“My mom is left with more worry and more wonder,” Crystal adds. “She always says she’s going to die before she knows what happened to (Fonassa).”
But they are determined to keep Fonassa’s name and face out there.
Every four years, Crystal walks 120 kilometres from Sagkeeng to Winnipeg to raise awareness about what happened to her cousin, and to all of the other missing and murdered women, girls and two-spirit people. She’ll do it again next year.
“We keep putting her face out there in case somebody remembers something,” Crystal says. “It’s hard. Especially when the day of finding her body comes around.
“It’s hard for my mom, but I got stronger throughout the years. I used to cry and break down, but not anymore. Just knowing that I’m keeping her memory alive is making me stronger.”
“I did a ceremony — a tie-up ceremony, it was called — to ask if we’re ever going to get justice, and the answer was no,” Crystal says. “I’m never going to get justice for her, and that guy (conducting the ceremony) told me it’s time to let her go and let her spirit rest and that it’s time for me to heal my family and move on.
“I’m trying to help my mom, but she can’t let it go.”
It took a long time to heal from that ceremony, and that realization.
“There’s never a day that I don’t think about her, and sometimes I break down crying,” Janet says. “I just want people to remember her, to know who she is…”
Fonassa was kind-hearted child who loved her family. She liked the colour blue and enjoyed french fries and cheeseburgers from McDonalds.
She was eagerly counting down the days until her 18th birthday (it would have been Feb. 2, 2008) because she wanted to go dancing.
Her biggest dream in life was to be a mother.
Her sense of humour and high-pitched singing voice are sorely missed and not forgotten.
Anyone with information about Fonassa’s case can contact Crime Stoppers at 204-786-8477.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.