After 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled from a river, Canadians have confronted a crisis that one judge calls ‘a sociological issue’ surrounding the nation’s aboriginal people
theguardian.com, Saturday 27 September 2014
Nestled near the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Red River and Assiniboine meet at a point called the Forks, not far from where the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from the water this August. They found her stuffed inside a plastic bag.
Fontaine was aboriginal, from the Sagkeeng First Nation, and had been living with her aunt and uncle on a reserve before she ran away to downtown Winnipeg to see her mother. The discovery of her body reignited a national conversation about missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada.
Fontaine’s name has become synonymous with the push for a public inquiry into the astonishing numbers of aboriginal women who are murdered or go missing in Canada each year. In February, Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old Inuk university student, went missing in Nova Scotia. She had been writing a thesis about violence against aboriginal women – her body was found along a highway median in New Brunswick.
After the recovery of Fontaine’s body, Saunders’ cousin, Holly Jarrett, logged on to Twitter and began using the hashtag #AmINext, in part to advocate for a public inquiry into the fates of the missing women. Soon, thousands of women were sharing photos of themselves holding signs asking “#AmINext”, and Jarrett had received photos and support from some 3,600 women.
Over the past 30 years, 1,200 aboriginal women have been recorded murdered or missing in Canada. Even more have likely vanished unnoticed. Stories of bodies found and loved ones lost have become so commonplace that the public has casually adopted the term “Highway of Tears” to refer to a stretch of Highway 16 between the northern towns of Prince George and Prince Rupert, in British Columbia. Along that road, 18 women (most of them aboriginal) have disappeared, their cases unsolved. The blunt message of the #AmINext campaign is not surprising – for many young women, they really could be.
Maryanne Pearce, a federal civil servant in Ottawa, used her PhD at the University of Ottawa’s law school to create a public database of cases involving missing and murdered women. She says that when she first heard about #AmINext, “it sent a chill down my spine”.
Pearce was immediately reminded of Sarah de Vries, a victim of the serial killer Robert Pickton, who in 2007 was convicted of murdering six women (though accused of murdering close to 50) from Vancouver’s troubled and notorious downtown east side. In 1995, three years before she disappeared, De Vries wrote in a now-public journal entry: “Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalking me like a predator and its prey. Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake. How does one choose a victim? Good question. If I knew that, I would never get snuffed.”
Fifteen of the 26 women accused Robert Pickton is accused of having murdered; Sarah de Vries is in the bottom left of the third row. Photograph: Reuters
In August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on his annual tour of the North when he was asked to respond to the push for an inquiry. He stressed that the death of Tina Fontaine should be considered a criminal matter, as opposed to a “sociological phenomenon”, and therefore no inquiry would be called. Reaction was swift and outraged, further outraged by the fact that the prime minister made his remarks while standing on Inuk land.
“We might sit there and clap because you’re the leader,” Jarrett says. “But that really hit a sore spot.”
In the weeks following, a judge in Prince George sentenced a 25-year-old man to life in prison for killing four women, two of whom were aboriginal. In his sentencing, the judge noted that high numbers of murdered aboriginal women was “a sociological issue – one that arises from, among other things, a high-risk lifestyle. It is something that must be dealt with.”
Canada is no stranger to inquiry when it comes to its treatment of First Nations people. The country only recently undertook the massive task of determining what actually went on in its notorious residential schools for aboriginal children – a long, painful initiative to confront an era that neither the state nor many aboriginal people particularly want to relive. Even Jarrett admits that inquiries are costly in both time and money, and do not always produce satisfactory results.
Those pushing for a formal inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of so many aboriginal women say the process would prove to the government and general public that systemic poverty, crime, abuse and racism form the backbone of violence against the group. But it is also true that over the past 30 years, very little change has followed the dozens of studies compiled. Earlier this month, for example, Public Safety Canada released a study that linked high numbers of aboriginal women in the sex industry to poverty, drug addiction and mental health problems.
“I don’t know that we really need the government to tell us that there’s a tragedy going on,” says Sarah Deer, an aboriginal legal scholar who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship this year for her work on aboriginal women and domestic abuse. “But it’s sometimes necessary to get reform, to get folks in power to acknowledge something. It’s sad that they won’t just listen, that their stories are not sufficient.”
Canada’s last federal budget committed $25m over five years to address issues of crime against aboriginal women. That does not include a formal inquiry process, but it does allocate money to creating a national DNA database, which would help police match found bones to missing women. The emphasis on law enforcement, however, does not satisfy those thinking of the scope of crimes past and the apparent pattern of violence.
“We can’t just throw money at justice initiatives,” says Jarrett. “So we let the girls go missing or be murdered and then we’ll put the offenders in jail … and [then] spend more money on keeping them there than we would on an inquiry?”
The intricacies of the issue are so vast that they are hard to ignore – violence and drug use amongst both men and women in Canada’s aboriginal populations is inextricably tied to poverty and oppression. First Nations people in Canada represents about 4% of the population, but about 23% of the prison population is aboriginal. Moreover, the disappearances are not limited by gender; databases have also been set up to track the number of missing aboriginal men.
All the while the human cost grows. Family members cling to paling hopes and police chase fleeting leads. Women, teenagers and girls vanish, and in many cases the only clues comprise bones and bodies clues left behind in woods, rivers and on the side of the road.
Tina Fontaine was cremated. Her ashes were spread over the grave of her father, who was murdered on the Sagkeeng Reserve.
- © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. ”Am I next?” serial killer victim wrote before vanishing in 1998