Red River Girl: The life and death of Tina Fontaine by Joanna Jolly. Penguin Random House Canada, 304 pages. $24.95 paperback, $11.99 E-Book.
A lot of Canadians were puzzled by one of the conclusions in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMIWG). The inquiry found that the tragic number of women involved amounted to an act of genocide. A new book by British journalist Joanna Jolly helps us understand the truth behind the inquiry’s conclusions.
Red River Girl tells the story of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous woman murdered in Winnipeg in 2014. Although a man was charged with her murder in 2015, he was acquitted by a jury in February 2018. Jolly presents Fontaine’s story almost as a police procedural. Most of her sources are connected to the Winnipeg police. She also untangles the somewhat scattered, often incoherent and sometimes self-serving memories of people who knew Fontaine in the last few months of her young life.
Make no mistake about it. Fontaine’s story was searingly tragic. She was born in the Sagkeeng First Nation, about 120 km north-east of Winnipeg and raised there by a great-aunt. Her mother was largely absent from her life. Her father was beaten to death when she was 12. Her school work began to suffer as a result and by the time she was 15 she was a frequent runaway. She ran to the city in attempts to reconnect with her mother. This brought her into contact with the predators who feed on Winnipeg’s inner city poverty.
It is fair to say that the most positive times for Fontaine were when she managed to connect with the stable elders of her community and was able to feel the language and culture that ought to have been hers. These moments were always thwarted by the men who fed her growing drug addiction and, despite her young age, lured her into the sex trade.
Worse still was the failure of the child protection system to shield her from the dangers of life on Winnipeg’s streets. On one occasion, within days of her death, she was a passenger in a pickup truck stopped by police at about five o’clock in the morning. The two constables failed to wonder why a young Indigenous woman was in the truck at that hour. They did not follow up on a missing person alert circulated earlier that night. They arrested the driver for minor traffic offenses and allowed Fontaine to walk away.
On many occasions when workers from Children and Family Services (CFS) did have Fontaine in their care, they would leave her in a downtown hotel room. This teenage runaway, picked up on a missing person report, was left unsupervised. She was able to walk out unnoticed at any time, and the drug dealers who had her in their clutches could wander the hotel corridors unimpeded. Of all the things CFS managed to do, protecting Tina Fontaine did not make it onto the list.
Jolly does a good job of reporting the details of Fontaine’s life and the unsuccessful search for her killer. She also makes it clear that Fontaine’s life and death were not unusual. Her tragedy was not unique. She was neither the first nor the last Indigenous woman to go missing and to be murdered. The RCMP estimate that nearly 1,200 had been murdered in Canada between 1980 and 2012.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada puts the number at closer to 4,000 over 40 years. In any event, Jolly writes, while Indigenous women make up only four per cent of Canada’s female population, almost half of all women murdered are Indigenous.
Tina Fontaine’s murder was one of the straws that broke the camel’s back. It galvanized Canada’s Indigenous community and captured national attention. Six months later, the federal government set up a national inquiry to gather the truth about this epidemic of violence.
The executive summary of the National Inquiry’s final report states:
“Racist colonial attitudes justified Canada’s policies of assimilation, which sought to eliminate First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples as distinct peoples and communities. (…) The result has been that many Indigenous people have grown up normalized to violence, while Canadian society shows an appalling apathy to addressing the issue. The National Inquiry … finds that this amounts to genocide.”
If you want to understand the roots of the ongoing assault on the Indigenous population of our country, get a copy of Red River Girl. Then go online and get a copy of the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Then read them and weep.
(Red River Girl is published by Penguin Random House Canada with a release date of 27 August 2019. An advance review copy was made available through NetGalley.com. #RedRiverGirl #NetGalley)