‘Why Are So Many of Our Girls Dying?’ Canada Grapples With Violence Against Indigenous Women

WINNIPEG — In the 24 hours before the disappearance of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Canada, she was seen by provincial child welfare workers, police officers and health care professionals.

Then she was found dead, dumped in Manitoba’s Red River, and wrapped in a plastic bag and duvet weighed down with 25 pounds of rocks.

“Canada and the system failed Tina at every step,” Thelma Favel, the great-aunt who raised her, said on a recent day from her small home in Powerview, a sleepy town on Lake Winnipeg near the reserve of the Sagkeeng First Nation. “Why are so many of our girls dying?”

Tina Fontaine’s great-aunt, Thelma Favel, who cared for her as a foster parent in Powerview, Manitoba, showing a photo of the girl.CreditAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

Many in Canada have been asking that question.

Tina’s death in 2014 — and the acquittal of a white man in her killing — was one of an increasing number of deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls that has shocked Canadians in recent years. The violence galvanized the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to open a $54 million national inquiry three years ago that promised to get at the root causes of the violence.

Part of Mr. Trudeau’s pledge to overcome decades of “humiliation, neglect and abuse” of Indigenous populations, and to reconcile with them, the inquiry heard testimony from nearly 1,500 families of victims and survivors in often emotional hearings across the country.

Its findings are to be made public on June 3, and its chief commissioner Marion Buller, a prominent Indigenous judge, recently hinted that it could include, among other things, recommendations that homicides of Indigenous women automatically be treated as first-degree murder. Law enforcement is also expected to be called to account.

But some Indigenous advocates have said that, however good its intentions, the inquiry has been marred by a lack of transparency and poor communication with families of victims.

“Justin Trudeau is trying to put rose-colored glasses on a very dark chapter of Canadian history,” said Kim O’Bomsawin, an Indigenous filmmaker whose documentary “Quiet Killing” examines violence against Indigenous women. “This is just more words.”

Yet even before its release, the inquiry has been forcing a national reckoning.

A memorial marker for Tina by the edge of the Red River in Winnipeg, where her body was found in 2014. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is in the background.CreditAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

Among the cases attracting renewed scrutiny is that of Cindy Gladue, a 36-year-old Indigenous sex trade worker and mother of three who bled to death in a bathtub in an Edmonton motel room in June 2011; the man accused of her killing, Bradley Barton, an Ontario truck driver, was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Human rights advocates say Ms. Gladue was dehumanized during Mr. Barton’s trial, including having her preserved pelvis introduced as evidence.

After the Alberta Court of Appeal ordered a retrial in 2017, Mr. Barton appealed the decision to Canada’s Supreme Court, which ruled on Friday that he should be retried for manslaughter. Justice Michael Moldaver wrote that the criminal justice system has let Ms. Gladue down.

The violence against Indigenous girls and women, experts say, is deeply rooted in Canada’s history.

From the 1870s until 1996, Canada forced thousands of Indigenous children to go to residential schools in an effort to suppress their language and culture. Many faced physical, sexual and mental abuse.

The trauma from this history has contributed, experts say, to persistently high rates of poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide.

Cindy Blackstock, a professor of social work at McGill University, who is director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said other problems were chronically underfunded social services for vulnerable girls and women and a lack of educational opportunities.

The violence has been unrelenting. Some 1,181 Indigenous women were killed or went missing across the country between 1980 and 2012, according to a 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

That number has since risen and Patricia Hajdu, who served as minister for the status of women, has estimated that it may be as high as 4,000 since many of the cases go unreported. The police have estimated that 10 percent of missing women in the country are Indigenous.

The Circle of Life Thunderbird House, an Indigenous spiritual center on Main Street, in the heart of Winnipeg.CreditAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

Winnipeg, whose name is derived from the Cree words for “murky water,” has the largest Indigenous population in Canada.

That is where Tina Fontaine’s life came to an end.

Her history in many ways reflects the cycle of violence affecting Indigenous communities. Her paternal grandfather was sent to a residential school, and became an alcoholic. Her mother, who became a ward of the state as a child, eventually joined the sex trade.

Ms. Favel said the child was “doomed before she was born.” Her mother was 12 when she began dating her father, who was then 23. After their chaotic relationship fell apart and Tina’s father was afflicted with cancer, Tina and her sister Sarah went to live with her.

Ms. Favel said Tina was a happy girl who showed promise. She liked math and dancing, and television crime shows. She aspired to be a social worker.

But at 12, the girl’s father, who only had four months to live, was beaten to death in an argument with two men over $60.

Despairing, she began to skip school, smoke pot and cut herself. She got a tattoo with two angel wings and her father’s name on her back. When asked to write a victim’s impact statement during the trial of her father’s killers, she fell apart.

“She kept crumpling the paper and said she couldn’t do it,” recalled Ms. Favel, on whose living room wall hangs a painting of Tina, waifish with big brown eyes.

In June 2014, Tina left Ms. Favel’s home and went to Winnipeg, about 75 miles away, to visit her mother. Ms. Favel gave her $50 and a prepaid phone card, telling her to call if she wanted to come home. The call never came.

Instead, she said, the girl texted photographs of herself with a black eye to her sister, saying that their mother, who was working in the sex trade, had beaten her. Alarmed, Ms. Favel said she reached out to three Manitoba family services agencies, which bickered over who was responsible.

Eventually, Tina was placed by child and family services in a series of local motels, from which she ran away. She began living on the streets in Winnipeg’s impoverished north end.

A missing person’s report was filed with Winnipeg police. On two occasions on Aug. 1, 2014, she was turned away from city shelters, according to a March report by the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, which noted she was vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

On Aug. 8, Winnipeg police pulled over a truck in which Ms. Fontaine was riding with an intoxicated man. The girl was allowed to go despite being the subject of a missing person’s report.

Later that day, she was found unconscious in a back alley. After being hospitalized, testing positive for drugs and telling a case worker she was spending time with a much older drug user called Sebastian, she was discharged and placed at a Best Western Hotel in Winnipeg’s gritty downtown.

The advocate’s report noted that the child abuse unit of the Winnipeg Police should have intervened. Instead, Ms. Fontaine left the hotel on her own.

The hotel where Tina was dropped off by Child and Family Services in 2014 after being found passed out the day before in a parking lot with alcohol and drugs in her system.CreditAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

After Ms. Fontaine was found dead in the Red River, the police arrested Sebastian, whose real name is Raymond Cormier. The New Brunswick native had 92 previous convictions, including assault with a weapon and drug possession.

During an elaborate sting operation, the police bugged his apartment and recorded him. Prosecutors said the recordings showed he had wanted to have sex with Ms. Fontaine and had been enraged after finding she was 15 years old.

“I drew the line and that’s why she got killed,” he was overheard saying.

The court also heard that Mr. Cormier had owned the same type of duvet that was wrapped around Tina’s body.

But the autopsy failed to determine cause of death and there was no evidence of sexual assault and no forensic evidence linking Mr. Cormier to the crime. In February 2018, Mr. Cormier was acquitted of second-degree murder, spawning outrage and protests across the country.

Visitors regularly pay tribute to Tina at a makeshift memorial of pink roses and photographs near the dock where her body was found. On a recent day, a card said: “sleeping beauty.”

Ms. Fontaine’s legacy is also felt in other ways.

After her death, volunteers routinely dredge the Red River looking for the bodies of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

On a recent day, a card at the memorial to Tina near where her body was found said, “sleeping beauty.”CreditAaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times