July 19, 2019

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Vow to learn and move ahead

MLAs reflect on system failures that led to Tina's death during sombre question period

Premier Brian Pallister said it's indisputable the province failed in the past to protect children such as Tina Fontaine.</p><p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p>

Premier Brian Pallister said it's indisputable the province failed in the past to protect children such as Tina Fontaine.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Members of the Manitoba legislative assembly were focused Tuesday on an issue larger than partisan politics: a new report on the life and death of Tina Fontaine.

In the morning, Manitoba advocate for children and youth Daphne Penrose released her findings from a special investigation into the teen’s death. During a sombre afternoon question period, MLAs reflected on how the child welfare system — among other groups — failed Tina, 15, a ward of Child and Family Services.

Tina’s body was pulled from the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. Her death ignited calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“We’ll continue to emphasize that this is an issue that all Manitobans need to get behind,” Premier Brian Pallister told reporters. “That we have failed our children in the past is indisputable. That we need to make sure we do everything in our power to give every Manitoba child opportunity and security is, I think, beyond debate.”

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Members of the Manitoba legislative assembly were focused Tuesday on an issue larger than partisan politics: a new report on the life and death of Tina Fontaine.

In the morning, Manitoba advocate for children and youth Daphne Penrose released her findings from a special investigation into the teen’s death. During a sombre afternoon question period, MLAs reflected on how the child welfare system — among other groups — failed Tina, 15, a ward of Child and Family Services.

Tina’s body was pulled from the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. Her death ignited calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"We’ll continue to emphasize that this is an issue that all Manitobans need to get behind," Premier Brian Pallister told reporters. "That we have failed our children in the past is indisputable. That we need to make sure we do everything in our power to give every Manitoba child opportunity and security is, I think, beyond debate."

In the house, NDP Leader Wab Kinew underscored Tina was the reason some of the MLAs entered politics, but government couldn’t fix the systemic problems that failed the teen on its own.

Kinew noted Indigenous families and communities also need to "do the heavy lifting" to make sure they are well.

"Indigenous men, such as myself, have to do the hard work of becoming better husbands, partners, fathers and sons in our community. Indigenous men, such as myself, have to leave the party lifestyle behind. We have to end domestic violence. We have to conquer toxic masculinity in our communities. And this is crucially important," he said.

"That said, there is a very important role for government to play and that is to support these communities and individuals doing the hard work."

Pallister responded to Kinew by saying the days of "finger pointing, blame-placing (and) looking to the past for faults" should be over.

"And we should be able to focus together on learning from those tragedies and now moving forward," the premier said.

The provincial government wouldn’t unequivocally commit to implementing all five recommendations laid out in Penrose’s report Tuesday, but said it will review them and act accordingly.

Penrose’s suggestions include phasing out school expulsions and suspensions, when possible, to keep children in the classroom, and developing youth-focused mental-health and addictions supports in Manitoba.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding (a former families minister) answered questions on behalf of Families Minister Heather Stefanson, who was away sick. He said the province has been working on "a number of" Penrose’s recommendations already and will continue to do so.

The minister also noted the province has made headway on 25 of the 34 provincially focused recommendations outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report and about 90 per cent of the recommendations in the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. Phoenix, 5, was murdered by her mother and stepfather in 2005.

"My point is we’ve taken some strong action on these other recommendations that have come forward, so clearly, we need to hear what the children’s advocate said, and we’ll be taking action on it," Fielding said.

"We want to continue to make sure that children don’t fall through the cracks in the CFS system."

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine wanted to hear stronger assurances Penrose’s report would be taken seriously.

"I think that today of all days — and particularly in respect of Tina Fontaine and the role that she played in galvanizing Canada — today of all days would have been the day to have a very vocal and firm commitment to these five recommendations," she said.

Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont emphasized the need to improve more than just the child welfare system.

"(Penrose’s report) covers prevention, it’s about victim services, it talks about mental health," he said. "Those are other areas where we need investments and we really need to follow up... because it hasn’t been happening."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Legislature reporter

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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