“The wide, frozen snake of the Red River curved through the city’s landscape, a timeless witness to all that had gone before and all that would come.”
BBC journalist Joanna Jolly learned of the murder of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl from the Sagkeeng First Nation, when a colleague in her Washington, DC office cited the case as an example of Canadians’ racism. Jolly was taken aback — she’d never had that impression of Canada or Canadians — and began looking into one of the country’s most notorious murder cases, particularly among those of First Nations women.
Canada does have a long, ugly history with missing and murdered Indigenous women, which Jolly details as she researches further. The culprits behind this unfortunate pattern are grim but unsurprising, the type of issues that it’s always been easier to turn away from rather than confront and manage, and Canada isn’t alone in its handling of such things.
“I began to grasp the extent of the violence and its connection to poverty, historical racism, and marginalization. I learned that over the past few decades, hundreds of Indigenous women had been murdered or gone missing and that many of their cases had not been solved.”
Tina’s body was found in August 2014, in Winnipeg’s Red River. She was half-Ojibway, half-Cree, and much about who she was has been lost in the lurid details surrounding her death. Even as young as she was, Tina’s life hadn’t been easy — she was heavily affected by the death of her father, who’d raised her, then bounced between relatives and child services before running away towards a troubled mother and ultimately, involvement in drugs and the seedier side of Winnipeg.
But in a trend that’s thankfully becoming more widespread in true crime, Jolly focuses on establishing more about Tina’s life before her death, while at the same time meticulously detailing the investigation, apprehension, and trial of a suspect. She writes in the prologue:
“Fierce, funny, protective, brave, risk-taking, she was a young woman trying to forge her identity and make difficult choices in what was often a dangerous world… One small consolation is that Tina’s legacy lives on as the face of a movement for much-needed change. As her guardian, Thelma, said of her, “She carried her message strong.””
This becomes an interesting and well explored thread in the narrative — Tina’s life in the context of the city, and of being a young Indigenous woman with a troubled background there, and what specific choices that presented. It’s as much a sociological study of this facet of Canadian life, and how it plays into the country’s identity and attitudes — namely, that Indigenous people, women in particular, are allowed to slip through the cracks — as it is a crime story. She includes interviews and perspectives from Tina’s loved ones, making this a sensitive portrait of her life that has a lot to say about crime and justice and their relation to Indigenous women.
Even with so many elements at play, Jolly handles them deftly, providing useful and thorough cultural context and rich descriptions. It’s highly readable — Jolly’s journalism includes work as a documentary filmmaker, and this storytelling experience shows in her choices for structuring the narrative, which does read almost film-like at times.
The Winnipeg police used the controversial “Mr. Big” sting to trap their suspect in Tina’s murder, Robert Cormier. If you’ve seen the “True East” episode from Netflix’s Confession Tapes, you’ll recognize this method. It entails tricking a suspect into believing they’ve befriended a big fish in organized crime. This new friend, an undercover officer, pretends to learn that the suspect is lying about a crime police believe he was involved in. The undercover officers win his trust and convince him that in order to ensure his criminal pals can protect him from police, he has to tell them everything. It’s an ethically murky tactic, but undercover operations aren’t exactly new.
This part of the book reminded me of Mark Bowden’s The Last Stone from earlier this year. Jolly worked closely with the detectives involved in the operation to catch Cormier in order to depict these events in behind-the-scenes detail, dialogue and all. It’s a compelling read, even if the judicial outcome ultimately leaves a lot to be desired.
What this book does best is shine a light on the prevalence of crime against Indigenous women and the failure of the justice system in addressing it, a topic that’s been edging further into the spotlight and has even been designated a genocide. And it gives something back to Tina Fontaine, one story among the many but here, at least, no longer merely a statistic.
Red River Girl:
The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine
by Joanna Jolly
published August 27, 2019 by Viking
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.