Since her death in the late summer of 2014, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine has become an emblem for the epidemic of violence that besets Indigenous girls and women in Canada.
The Anishinaabe teen was found on August 18, 2014, in Winnipeg’s Red River, her 72-lb body wrapped inside a duvet cover and weighted down by rocks. We still don’t know exactly how she died and last month, Raymond Cormier, the man charged in her death, was acquitted. There will not be an inquiry. So we’re also not sure where—or with whom—to apportion guilt.
But that’s not entirely true.
The disproportionate victimization of Indigenous girls and women in Canada is a trend that indicts more than the conduct of one individual. Instead, it implicates the fabric of Canadian society.
In the #MeToo era, it’s critical to recognize and question why, in Canada, Indigenous girls and women are so vulnerable to harm. Though a minority population, they’re more than three times more likely to report experiencing violence, and five times more likely to die as a result of violence, than non-Indigenous women.
Those facts won’t change until Canadians do the essential work so many hoped the problem-plagued National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls would undertake: assert the right of Indigenous women and girls to be protected; underline the inequalities that make them vulnerable; illuminate the traumatic legacy of the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, and acknowledge the troubling relationship that exists between police and Indigenous people.
But first and foremost, we need to value the girls and women who we’ve ignored and demeaned.
“Canada has to take a hard look at a long-standing, well-constructed image of Indigenous people as expendable,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair of Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.
In the case of First Nations girls and women, the notion of expendability often translates to sexual abuse and exploitation—an idea that’s reflected in TV and movies, too.
“It’s reinforced by media attention that focuses solely on the negative and movies like The Revenant where you see these hairy, white traders dragging little Indian girls around by the hair in the bar, and it says without having to express it to people, that this what they are for; they’re there for sex and to use and nobody cares.”
How do we protect and improve the lives of First Nations girls and women? Start with addressing their status.
Abolish the inequity imposed by colonization
“We are at the absolute bottom of Canadian society,” says Sharon McIvor, British Columbia-based lawyer and activist.
That status obviously creates vulnerability.
Though a grandmother now, McIvor recalls the fear she felt when she ventured off-reserve as a girl. “If we were walking home from a movie and we saw headlights coming we would head for the bushes. We knew white men saw us as someone they could do whatever they wanted with and nobody would even care.”
“All of the Tinas of the world” have internalized that feeling, she says.
For McIvor and others, the insidious forms of abuse and discrimination Indigenous women encounter springs from the fundamental inequality they continue to experience as a result of colonization. The first Indian Act of 1876 defined Indian status along the line of male descent and excluded women who married non-Indigenous men, as well as their offspring. (By contrast, Indigenous men could marry outside of their community without consequence.)
In the late ’80s, McIvor challenged the inherent discrimination in the Indian Act, taking her case to the Supreme Court in British Columbia. She won—but rather than eliminate discrimination entirely, the Canadian government created a secondary class for women and their descendants, codifying their lesser-than status. Last year, the government finally passed Bill S-3, which would eliminate sex discrimination from the Act, but with one major catch: there’s no timeline for its implementation. That’s right. After more 140 years of legalized discrimination, Indigenous women are being told you have a right to equality— eventually, someday, we’ll let you know.
“Government really holds the key. As much as we want to say, Let’s all get together and hold hands and decolonize, we can’t decolonize. What we need is action. We need Tina Fontaine to know that she’s important.”
After asserting the inherent equality of Indigenous women and their children, Canada needs to right the wrongs done to First Nations kids and their families.
Make Indigenous kids feel valued
Making sure First Nations kids know they’re worthy of respect and care has been the decade-long project of Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
In 2007, The Caring Society sued the federal government for discriminating against Indigenous children by under-funding on-reserve services and support, from education to health care.
Like the status question for women, this situation sends an implicit message to Indigenous kids: you deserve less.
“Kids don’t know that the federal government is underfunding them,” says Blackstock. “All they know is that life is a lot harder for them than everybody else, so they internalize it.”
Perhaps the most egregious fact about this underfunding is how it plays a role in why so many Indigenous children are disproportionally represented in foster care (they make up nearly half of all kids in care nationally).
In Manitoba, 15 percent of the population is Indigenous, yet at least 85 percent of the kids in care are First Nations. Tina Fontaine was one of those kids. In the summer of 2014, she was apprehended by Child and Family Services in Winnipeg.
Tina ultimately chose homelessness and couch-surfing over care (which in her case, meant, at one point, being put up in a motel). It’s no mystery why, says Tracey McIntosh, director of Justice for Girls, a non-profit that advocates for girls living in poverty in BC.
“When I talk to Indigenous young women—the failures start at such a young age [for them]—that there is no trust for the system,” she says.
That distrust is entirely reasonable, given the legacy of harm Indigenous peoples have suffered at the hands of foster care agencies during the Sixties Scoop (in addition to the abuse that thousands of Indigenous children experienced at government-mandated residential schools).
The associated trauma isn’t past-tense but painfully present, too. These events have left their mark across generations in elevated rates of illness and disease, mental distress, depression, addictive behaviours, substance abuse and suicide.
Fontaine’s decision to leave foster care underlines the trauma of care and the failure of these agencies to provide Indigenous kids with two things: safety—a 2016 report by BC’s Representative for Children and Youth found that Indigenous girls are three times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse in foster care than non-Indigenous girls—and a sense of community.
“If they don’t have a family they’ll create one on the street,” says Blackstock. “It’s not a healthy connection but it’s a connection.”
Securing equal funding for First Nations kids is a healthy foundation from which to start the larger work of not just reforming services to better suit the needs of at-risk children, but for building and supporting healthy families, says Blackstock.
The good news: after a decade of resistance, the Canadian government recently agreed to increase funding for on-reserve child welfare services. That’s just the beginning, though; ultimately Blackstock hopes the Canadian government will grab a calculator and take the righting of its wrongs seriously.
“Add up all the inequalities in health, education, services, etc. and then work with First Nations to create something like the Marshall Plan [a multi-billion dollar economic assistance initiative which contributed to the recovery of Europe after WWII] and address all those inequalities in a time frame sensitive to children’s needs.”
Blackstock wonders how having that equitable foundation 10 years ago might have made a difference to Tina.
“The question for me becomes, Had those inequities not been there, would Tina Fontaine have had to leave her family? I think there’s a much less likely chance that she would have.”
But leave she did. And protecting at-risk girls from being harmed involves a hard look at how discrimination often informs the relationship between Indigenous people and police.
Hold police accountable for discrimination and abuse
Tina Fontaine’s vulnerability didn’t just elude the scope and understanding of CFS, it also went unrecognized by Winnipeg Police. Nine days before her body was discovered, Tina was found by two officers in the early hours of the morning in a truck with a man who’d picked her up because he was “looking for a girl to hang out with.”
Even though Tina’s name was flagged as “missing” in the system and the man was acting erratically, the officers let Tina go.
Police indifference to reports of missing Indigenous girls and women is a persistent complaint among families of the missing and murdered, says Marilyn Courchene, a council member of the Sagkeeng First Nation, where Tina spent the bulk of her youth. Courchene says she can only recall police coming to the reserve once in response to a missing person report.
It’s not just indifference, however; it’s incidences of predation among police that concern activists too. A 2013 report, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Girls and Women in Northern BC, interviewed 50 Indigenous women who described everything from physical abuse to sexual assault at the hands of police. In 2015, dozens of claims of abuse against six provincial police officers were made by Indigenous women in Val D’or, Que., with no charges laid.
Racism, sexism, structural inequalities that negatively affect the lives of girls and women and continually send the message that they’re of no consequence or value; discrimination and predation in the institutions that purport to protect them—these are the rocks that drag Indigenous girls and women down and put them in harm’s way. They’re the burdens 72-lb Tina Fontaine bore on her narrow shoulders as she tried to make her way in the world.
“How does a child deserve that?” says Wesley-Esquimaux.
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