Tina Fontaine and the Issue of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Canadians

Book review: Red River Girl, by Joanna Jolly (Amazon / Book Depository)

“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.

Amazon / Book Depository

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10 thoughts on “Tina Fontaine and the Issue of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Canadians

  1. I haven’t heard of Tina Fontaine but I am aware of the issue as we have a similar phenomenon here in the US with respect to women of color and rape victims. In my heart (as I have no statistics to support my belief), I think gender is the primary factor in certain crimes against certain women not being given the investigative attention they deserve. It does feel like we’re having some movement in the right direction, though.

    I’m going to see if my library carries this book. Thanks for your always thoughtful and insightful review💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, we do have a similar problem in the US. Canada has gone so far as classifying it as genocide, which is so disturbing and concerning. I think gender is certainly a factor in some of these cases falling by the wayside, but I think race and lifestyle are also big ones. There’s a lot of addiction and the kind of issues that tend to make people unfairly unsympathetic towards victims at play. The efforts that the Canadian government are making towards righting these wrongs are really impressive, hopefully it won’t be too little too late.

      Hope you get to read this one! It’s excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I must read this. I read a novel called The Break by Katherena Vermette set in Winnipeg and described the discrimination faced by the First Nation people and the Métis including from law enforcement. In my dreadful ignorance I was not even previously aware that there were First Nation people in Canada – in my defence I am English and schools in the 70s did not educate us about these things, in fact I still think English schools are stuck in the Henry VIII period, we really need to get a grip. I get so upset when I read about the treatment of the indigenous North American peoples. The issue of female murders and lack of police tackling them also reminds me of the scandal of Juarez.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m afraid it’s not much different in the US; we also didn’t get a thorough education of what the Native Americans went through. I had some idea of it but only very basic until I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and I don’t know why that book isn’t required reading in US schools, it absolutely should be. It sounds like English and American schools are really stuck in the past, and from what I’ve heard getting curriculum changes can be a ridiculously slow if not impossible process.

      And you’re right, it is very reminiscent of the situation in Juarez, I was thinking the same!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! This looks really intriguing. Unsolved murders of minorities does seem like a known problem already in the US, but it might be interesting to see what aspects of this issue are the same/different in another country so nearby. I might pick this one up, and am glad to see you appreciated the read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like a great book, I’ve read a few reviews of it, but I’m glad it’s so readable. It will help spread the word about the tragic way indigenous women (and men) are treated in my country. It’s not as well known, but it’s certainly gaining traction now!

    Liked by 1 person

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