Through her death, Tina Fontaine has the power to make changes to the systems that failed her, said the teen’s great-aunt Thelma Favel, who sees impending change on the horizon.
"When people think of Tina, they think about the way she died and everything. But they don’t see the door that she’s opened," Favel said when reached at her home in Powerview.
"I know it’s awful," she said, reflecting on the tragedy she now believes may bring forth solutions. "I’d rather have her here beside me than to have this legacy. I’d rather have her here right now than buried in a grave with her dad."
That legacy — Tina’s lasting "kindness" — is how Favel said she hopes to reach other young people like Tina. Following an acquittal on a second-degree murder charge for the man accused of killing the 15-year-old in August 2014, Favel said she will continue to work toward change. Organizations and individuals have approached her with ideas for how to honour Tina’s name.
"I have things that I want done," she said.
"I just want everybody to remember Tina as she was. With peace and respect."
Favel raised Tina as a member of Sagkeeng First Nation after Tina’s father, Eugene Fontaine, was diagnosed with cancer and was unable to care for Tina and her sister. He was beaten to death at age 41 on Oct. 31, 2011, by two men who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. His death hit Tina hard and she wanted to reconnect with her family in Winnipeg. In late June 2014, she arrived in the city on a Child and Family Services-approved visit to see her mother, Valentina Duck. She was supposed to stay for a week, but when she didn’t return home, Favel asked Child and Family Services for help.
Favel said CFS officials gave her the runaround when she asked for help on Tina’s behalf. She didn’t know the details of what was happening to Tina in Winnipeg, but she wanted to make sure the teen was safe and had easy access to counselling services upon her return. That didn’t happen.
Tina was taken into care in Winnipeg in mid-July and ran from her CFS placements — which included local hotels. She came into contact with police, medical professionals and social workers during her last days. She was reported missing to the Winnipeg Police Service four times between July 17 and Aug. 17, 2014 — the day her body was pulled from the Red River. A three-week second-degree murder trial for 56-year-old suspect Raymond Cormier ended with an acquittal last month.
After the court case ended, the provincial government formally implemented new legislation governing the Office of the Children’s Advocate — a change that expanded the office’s responsibilities and will allow it to release an upcoming report on CFS’s handling of Tina’s case. The province no longer uses hotels to house kids in CFS care, and it has promised reforms to its child-welfare system. At the national level, an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is now asking for an extended deadline to complete its research — work that was called for in the wake of Tina’s death.
Manitoba already has recommendations born out of Tina’s death — solutions proposed by Indigenous communities specifically to help vulnerable Indigenous girls who are in the child-welfare system and are at a higher risk for sexual exploitation.
"I just want everybody to remember Tina as she was. With peace and respect" – Thelma Favel
In a 2016 report for the children’s advocate, Indigenous researcher and professor Dr. Marlyn Bennett, a former child in care herself, recommended Manitoba establish a grandmothers council to provide guidance on issues affecting Indigenous youth in the province, particularly young girls.
"Quite often, the voices of young people are not listened to. And grandmothers are pretty fierce in terms of love for their children. So that was one thing that I think was a really key recommendation that came out of our report," she said, reflecting on the changes — or lack thereof — she’s seen since Tina’s death.
In August 2017, the provincial government set up the Advisory Council of Knowledge Keepers, led by two elders who meet monthly and offer their experience working with Indigenous women and girls to focus on child sexual exploitation awareness as part of the provincially funded Tracia’s Trust programs.
Bennett, who is now studying how to make it easier for Indigenous women to disclose experiences of sexual violence and feel safe doing so, said she’s hopeful more changes will happen.
"We’re seeing the value in recognizing the importance of the next generation of young people, which is who Tina Fontaine represents. Despite what happened to her, she still represents hope for the future that we can change things and hopefully with dialogue between Indigenous populations and non-Indigenous populations that we can start to see the value in Indigenous populations, and that we have a role to play in the future of Canada and what it could be if you work together with Indigenous people."
Tina’s death has created a true atmosphere for change, said Sheila North, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, even in the footsteps of other Indigenous young people — including Tracia Owen (Tracia’s Trust), Jordan Anderson (Jordan’s Principle) and Helen Betty Osborne — who died before seeing new policies and recommended changes their names now symbolize.
They all show "a serious reality in this province," arising from traditionally racist policies, North said. After Tina’s case, North said she’s seen that people are still skeptical, but that calls for change aren’t being as easily dismissed as they once were.
"Our people have been relentless in calling for change, relentless even in the face of great tragedy to say that enough is enough, and we see it on social media and we see it on the streets, when we see the rallies and walks and protests, so this is just another continuation of justice. I know there’s a lot of angry people that want to take matters into their own hands, and I don’t even blame them sometimes, but at the same time, I think what Thelma and others, and grandmothers, are telling us is that violence is not the answer and that if we continue to call for changes that reflect love, we’ll be far better ahead for future generations than we are now," she said.
"I think there is hope and I think we should maintain that momentum and I know a lot of people are."
North, along with Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, were part of a group of Indigenous leaders who stood outside the courthouse and demanded change immediately following the not-guilty verdict in Cormier’s case on Feb. 22.
Now, Dumas said AMC is focusing on working with the federal government, deciding "it’s not looking like we’re going to be able to collaborate with the province any further," on planned Child and Family Services reforms which it said require a complete transfer of child-welfare agencies back to Indigenous communities. In the meantime, he said, "we can’t afford to have another Tina."
"Anyone who is in a position of authority that actually can direct influence or power should be reassuring the community," Dumas said.
"It’s not only up to us to reassure our people. Our fellow Manitobans need to be doing that as well. I would certainly feel reassured if these people of influence would say, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re all looking out for each other.’ Because it just seems that in light of what happened to Tina Fontaine, when you follow what happened to that young girl throughout (the final days) of her life, all of the different people that had come into contact with her that should have saved her and didn’t. I’m not pointing fingers or casting blame, it’s just that we need to be more vigilant in how we look out for each other," he said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, March 13, 2018 at 2:51 PM CDT: Adds PDF.