WINNIPEG — The death of a 15-year-old aboriginal girl found wrapped in a bag and dumped in the Red River is prompting renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Tina Fontaine had been in Winnipeg less than a month when she ran away from foster care. Her petite body was discovered Sunday in the river and police are treating her death as a homicide.
Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said his first thought when he heard about Tina’s death was “not another one.” For two decades, Robinson said, he’s been working with aboriginal families who have lost daughters, sisters, aunts and mothers.
“It just gets tiring after a while to see the suffering, the human suffering, and no answers coming to the families about what happened to their loved ones,” Robinson said Tuesday. “It’s just saddening to see the families continue to suffer.”
A national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women is the only way many families will get the answers they deserve, Robinson suggested. So far, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has rebuffed all calls for such a probe.
“They don’t view it as a priority,” Robinson said. “I don’t know what their policy advisers are telling them.”
Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that “our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Ms. Fontaine at this very difficult time.”
But MacKay again rejected an inquiry.
“Now is the time to take action, not to continue to study the issue,” he said.
The government is addressing the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women in other ways such as through aboriginal justice programs and a national DNA missing person’s index, MacKay added.
Still, calls for a national inquiry have been growing louder with every aboriginal woman who disappears or is discovered dead.
In May, the RCMP issued a detailed statistical breakdown of 1,181 cases since 1980. The report said aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, but account for 16 per cent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of missing women.
Tina was last seen in downtown Winnipeg Aug. 8 and was reported missing the next day. Investigators want anyone who saw her since then or who knows what happened to her to contact police.
Police say she had run away several times in the last year but had always been located safely. They aren’t releasing how she died or whether she was sexually assaulted. Since Fontaine was under the care of Child and Family Services, her death is automatically being reviewed by Manitoba’s Office of the Children’s Advocate.
The discovery of her body has touched a nerve in Manitoba, where almost half the women who have been murdered since 1980 were aboriginal. A vigil to honour the teen was being planned for Tuesday evening near the docks where her body was found.
Claudette Dumont-Smith, executive director of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, called the girl’s murder shocking. She said it shows that no one is taking the safety of aboriginal women seriously. Harper and other people in positions of power need to come out and state this has to stop, she said.
“We’re not hearing that,” Dumont-Smith said. “We’re not seeing any change, any improvement in the situation. We are calling for a national public inquiry and we will continue to call for that.
“This just can’t go on.”
If there were nearly 1,200 women of any other ethnic origin who were missing or murdered, the reaction would be different, she said.
“There would be an outcry. There would be protests in the streets,” she said.
“This is not an aboriginal issue. It’s a Canadian issue. It’s really a blemish on Canada that innocent lives are being taken now just about every month. What can a 15-year-old do to deserve that?”
David Langtry, acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, said the tragic deaths of aboriginal women are becoming commonplace. Although Fontaine now joins almost 1,200 other missing and murdered aboriginal women, Langtry said she cannot disappear into the oblivion of statistics.
“We have a duty to ensure she leaves a legacy, and that her legacy is to bring an end to the chronic cycle of violence that rips aboriginal women and girls from the fabric of family and community at this alarming rate,” he said in a statement.
“This is not acceptable in a country like Canada. It is time for a full public inquiry into the root causes of so many deaths and disappearances of aboriginal women and girls. It is time for a national action plan to confront this issue.”
Niigaan Sinclair, assistant native studies professor at the University of Manitoba, felt moved to help organize the vigil in honour of Tina and Faron Hall, an aboriginal man whose body was also pulled from the Red River on Sunday.
Police say foul play is not suspected in the death of Hall, who was known as the “homeless hero” for saving two people from drowning in that same river in 2009.
The latest deaths should spark a national conversation about how aboriginals are treated in Canada, Sinclair said.
“It’s an epidemic for all of us. It reflects not only the violence against indigenous women but also the poverty that indigenous people endure as a result of 150 years of violence, unequal and devastating policies.”
Nahanni Fontaine, the Manitoba government’s special adviser on aboriginal women’s issues, said the death of a 15-year-old girl is devastating for the community. But with every tragedy comes greater determination to find a solution, she said.
“It just makes your resolve that much stronger to keep doing the work, to keep struggling and fighting and working in partnership so that next year, you and I are not having this conversation.”