Widespread changes demanded to prevent 'another 100 Tina Fontaines'

The death of Tina Fontaine and the acquittal of the man accused of killing her has sparked demands for widespread changes to prevent more young Indigenous people falling through society's cracks.

Changes to child welfare, justice systems demanded in wake of Raymond Cormier acquittal

Marchers hold up signs that read 'Love for Tina' and 'Restorative Justice Now!' as they approach The Forks. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is seen in the background. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The death of Tina Fontaine and the acquittal of the man charged with killing her has sparked demands for widespread changes to prevent more young Indigenous people falling through society's cracks.

"It's time to take action … We all have to come together and focus on solutions and stop allowing the most marginalized people in this country to be discriminated against," Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North said on the steps of court Thursday, after a jury found Raymond Cormier, 56, not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of the teenager from Sagkeeng First Nation.

Tina, 15, was found dead in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014, her 72-pound body wrapped in a duvet cover and weighted down with rocks. The cause of death remains undetermined.

Amid the outpouring of sympathy for Tina's family, many people have criticized the various systems involved in the teen's life — including Child and Family Services, police, health care and the court system — and offered possible solutions.

Reform child welfare services

Much of the criticism has taken aim at the province's child welfare system, which took over care for Tina after she came to Winnipeg from her home near Sagkeeng First Nation in the summer of 2014.

Tina Fontaine's body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg on Aug. 17, 2014. It was wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down with rocks. Her death remains unsolved. (Tina Fontaine/Facebook)

Manitoba Family Services Minister Scott Fielding said the province is working to reduce the number of Indigenous children in CFS care. There are currently 11,000 children in CFS care, and 90 per cent of those are Indigenous.

"I think, No. 1, that we need to reduce the amount of children in care. We need to reduce the amount of days in care and we need to reunite families. That is the most important thing," Fielding said.

Fielding says the legislative review committee is looking at the rules governing CFS and what might need to change.

Daphne Penrose, Manitoba's children's advocate, says more services need to be made available for youth struggling with addictions and trauma.

"I can't speak specifically about Tina, but what I will tell you is we have a population of children who are at high risk of being exploited, and who are being exploited every day right now," she said.

Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, wants First Nations to take greater control of child welfare services.

"Fundamentally, we need jurisdiction over our children and we're going to take it and we're going to move forward," he said.

Justice system failing

The verdict in Cormier's case brought renewed accusations that the justice system fails to properly serve Indigenous people.

North points out that nearly three decades after the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, a Manitoba examination of the treatment of Indigenous people in the justice system, many of the recommendations haven't been implemented.

Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, left, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, and MKO Grand Chief Sheila North speak to the media outside the courthouse after a jury found Raymond Cormier not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Fontaine. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Chickadee Richard, the traditional justice worker at the Assembly of First Nations's family advocate office, says the justice system is failing Indigenous people and wants more Indigenous practices incorporated. 

"I'm hoping that we can do justice through our traditional ways — go back to where we were as a people and how we worked together to bring justice into our communities," she said while speaking at a rally in support of Tina's family at the Oodena Celebration Circle in Winnipeg on Friday.

Scott Newman, a spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, called for "Aboriginal-focused justice reforms," including increased use of sentencing circles, justice committees, and more court sittings in rural and remote Indigenous communities.

He also called for more Indigenous people to work in the justice system as lawyers, judges and clerks and participate as jurors, "not just make it a justice system Aboriginal people are subject to, where they're only there as witnesses, victims, or accused." 

Address root causes

Other reform ideas focused on addressing the economic and health disparities in Indigenous communities that lead youth to become vulnerable in the first place.

"We are continually marginalized. We live in Third World conditions. You set us up for failure right from the start and take our children away," said Jerry Daniels, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization.

Defence lawyer Scott Newman believes more money needs to be invested to end boil-water advisories on reserves, to ensure all-weather access to remote communities and improve education and health-care services.

"The real tragedy would be, if we don't learn from this and we don't make the changes to protect other young girls, we're going to have another 100 Tina Fontaines," he said.

Join CBC Indigenous's Lenard Monkman as he walks through the entire rally. 1:34:38

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Web Writer

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.

With files from Karen Pauls