July 22, 2019

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Opinion

Don’t fail Tina again

Well-meaning words will come out of today’s report. What’s needed is action

Melena Bittern holds a sign in support of Tina Fontaine during a rally for the slain teen last February at The Forks.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Melena Bittern holds a sign in support of Tina Fontaine during a rally for the slain teen last February at The Forks.

It’s been just over a year since Feb. 22, 2018, the day Raymond Cormier was found not guilty of the slaying of Tina Fontaine.

I was in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

I remember two things from that day. The first was the anger from Tina’s mother, Valentina Duck, who confronted Cormier as he sat sheepishly, refusing to look at her.

The other were the words of Tina’s auntie, Thelma Favel, as she cried out: “My baby. My baby. My baby,” with a hundred or so of her family, Indigenous leaders and grandmothers surrounding her.

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It’s been just over a year since Feb. 22, 2018, the day Raymond Cormier was found not guilty of the slaying of Tina Fontaine.

I was in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

Winnipeg Police Service Handout</p><p>Tina Fontaine.</p>

Winnipeg Police Service Handout

Tina Fontaine.

I remember two things from that day. The first was the anger from Tina’s mother, Valentina Duck, who confronted Cormier as he sat sheepishly, refusing to look at her.

The other were the words of Tina’s auntie, Thelma Favel, as she cried out: "My baby. My baby. My baby," with a hundred or so of her family, Indigenous leaders and grandmothers surrounding her.

The next day was a blur of anger and sadness, ending with a march from the courthouse to the Oodena circle at The Forks.

Just as our community had done two weeks earlier — walking in the opposite direction after the not guilty verdict in the Gerald Stanley trial in the death of Colten Boushie — Indigenous peoples demonstrated yet again to this country what love and commitment looks like while making fierce and brave calls for change in the face of violence and hatred.

The hashtag may have been #loveforTina but the march was not about mourning. It was about vowing to make sure no one would ever go through the experiences that Tina did.

Despite a Canadian society that mostly continues to devalue Indigenous lives, some real change has come since Tina’s body was found in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. Most of this has been driven by visionary leaders in the Bear Clan Patrol, Meet me at the Bell Tower, and Drag the Red — all of whom have committed to help young women like Tina.

Tina’s Safe Haven, a 24/7 drop-in centre started by Ndinawe, was founded and started in November 2018 on Selkirk Avenue in the North End.

Despite its dysfunctional delivery, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry is also largely attributed to what happened to Tina. The federal Liberals, for good or bad, have also created new legislation to hand jurisdiction over much of the child welfare system to Indigenous organizations.

These are good, but ultimately minor, changes.

Today, Manitoba Advocate for Children & Youth Daphne Penrose will release her report on Tina’s interactions with the child welfare system, paramedics, police, and others, finally recommending changes to avoid failures like what happened to Tina.

There are four real things to watch for.

The first is how wide-scale and systemic the mistreatment of Indigenous children and women are. Even when they come into contact with systems designed to help them, there are massive, overwhelming failures that range from a lack of safe places to go, to adequately trained front-line workers, to inappropriate representations that lead to stereotypes and racism.

The second is how deep the mistrust is between Indigenous peoples and social workers, police, and most of the child welfare system. Tina may have been offered assistance but the fact remains that when someone in a uniform engages an Indigenous person, your first thought is not "this person is here to help me" but rather "how do I get away from them?"

This mistrust is also embedded in Indigenous communities — which is why simply handing over jurisdiction over the child welfare system to Indigenous organizations won’t change anything if the attitudes in that system remain the same.

The third is the foundation of the first two. There is an enduring problem in Canadian society in not seeing Indigenous peoples as human beings.

This one is sure to get me a lot of hate mail (hence, proving the point) but the fact remains that Indigenous peoples — particularly women and children — face violence no one else in Canada does. There is a reason for massive over-incarceration rates, overwhelming rates of poverty, and the disproportional removal of Indigenous children and it’s simple.

Canadian society believes that Indigenous peoples are problems that need solving.

The problem is that Indigenous peoples are not problems.

Seeing them as problems is.

Indigenous women and children like Tina Fontaine live in a society that fails to see them.

I guarantee that if Tina had been born non-Indigenous in a town like Winkler or a community like River Heights, she would still be alive today. She would have services that would support her and work on multiple levels to keep her out of harm’s way. She would have access to a safe place to live, be surrounded by a family nurtured by society, and have primarily positive experiences with police and governments and Canadians that would lead her to believe that help is possible and there is always a choice.

We don’t live in that world.

Which leads me to the fourth thing to look for in Penrose’s report.

This won’t be found in the pages, but by the people holding it.

A lot of words will be shared. Tears maybe. Promises, definitely. But these mean little.

Look at the actions.

Indigenous peoples have been reported on my entire life. I have an entire book case of reports.

Each one has recommendations. Many, in fact. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has 440.

Even with all of these studies, commissions, and inquiries, I can fill a small notebook with the handful of changes that have been implemented.

I can probably even tell you what will be in Penrose’s report.

I just can’t tell you what will happen next.

Most times, it’s nothing. The status quo wins, Indigenous lives continue to be devalued, and children and women die.

Every once in a while, a report comes along and people commit to change for a while and some small things happen — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission comes to mind.

It’s up to those who have integrity and believe in peace to show responsibility and provoke and produce change.

To march, for example. Movement doesn’t happen by standing still.

So, when you see the report released, watch what happens by those holding it.

This includes you.

We all failed Tina. This means we all must commit to her now.

This is her legacy.

It’s up to us now to show love. Real love.

Love for Tina.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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History

Updated on Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at 7:48 AM CDT: Amends reference to Gerald Stanley trial in the death of Colten Boushie

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