Manitoba

'She deserved better': Friend asks Jeanenne Fontaine's killer how he could devalue life

The best friend of a Manitoba Indigenous woman killed during a botched robbery looked at a man convicted in her death and asked how a life could be worth that little to him.

'Forty-five dollars was what my friend's life was valued in,' sentencing hears

Jeanenne Chantel Fontaine shown in the photo used for an online obituary. She was born Feb. 24, 1988 and died March 15, 2017. Jason Meilleur, one of three men convicted of manslaughter in her death, will be sentenced in May. (ObitTree)

The best friend of a Manitoba Indigenous woman killed during a botched robbery looked at a man convicted in her death and asked how a life could be worth that little to him.

"Forty-five dollars was what my friend's life was valued in (Jason) Meilleur's eyes," Melissa Stevenson said during a sentencing hearing Wednesday.

"I can give you that $45 if you can give me my friend back."

Jeanenne Fontaine, 29, was shot and her Winnipeg home set on fire in 2017 when three men came to her house to collect on a drug debt her boyfriend owed.

In January, a jury found Meilleur guilty of manslaughter.

Jeanenne Fontaine's friend, Melissa Stevenson, asked Meilleur how life could be worth that little in court Wednesday. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Stevenson told Meilleur's sentencing hearing that her friend was struggling with addiction after her cousin's death, but she had goals to get clean and be a good mother to her three children.

"Her life was beautiful, her life mattered and she deserved better," Stevenson said.

Fontaine was the cousin of Tina Fontaine, a teenager whose body had been found three years earlier in the Red River, and whose death fuelled renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Tina had also spiralled downward after her father, Eugene Fontaine, was beaten to death in 2011. Two men pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Victim impact statements at their trial described how Tina had a happy childhood, but was unable to cope with her father's death and drifted away from the people closest to her.

'I need to find a new home'

In diary entries read in court, Jeanenne Fontaine wrote a list of goals for her life. The final one said: "I need to find a new home."

The trial heard how the three men showed up at Fontaine's house to collect a drug debt for Meilleur's girlfriend and were looking for Fontaine's boyfriend.

When he wasn't there, the situation turned into a botched robbery in which she was shot in the head and the house was set on fire.

Malcolm Mitchell, the man court heard pulled the trigger, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last year and was sentenced to life. Christopher Brass was found guilty of manslaughter and in January was given 15 years, which is to be served at the same time as life sentences for first- and second-degree murder convictions in separate matters.

He was bringing two hyenas with him, people he knew were violent.
- Michael Desautels

He will not be eligible for parole for 40 years.

Crown prosecutor Michael Desautels argued that Meilleur was the "Trojan horse." He was collecting the debt, he brought Mitchell and Brass and he was the one who got them invited into the home.

"He was bringing two hyenas with him, people he knew were violent," Desautels said.

The Crown is asking that Meilleur be sentenced to 15 years.

'I truly am sorry'

Meilleur's lawyer, Theodore Mariash, scoffed at the idea his client should be given the same sentence as Brass, who court heard provided the gun Mitchell used in the killing.

He argued Meilleur had only gone to the home to collect on a drug debt and shouldn't be held to the same moral culpability as his co-accused.

"I take great exception to the suggestion (Meilleur) exuded any degree of control over those homicidal maniacs," he said.

Mariash instead suggested Meilleur be given a four-year sentence.

This photo, shown on Jan. 7, 2019, at the trial for two men accused of manslaughter in connection with the death of Jeanenne Fontaine, shows the aftermath of an Aberdeen Avenue house fire. Fontaine was shot in the house, which was then set on fire on March 14, 2017. (Court exhibit)

After final submissions were made Meilleur stood up to speak to the court, directing his comments to members of Fontaine's family gathered in the gallery.

"There's not a day goes by that I … don't think of her," he said of Fontaine.

"If I had a time machine I would go back to that day and just stay home, not pick up my phone … go get help.

"I'm sorry, I truly am sorry."

In a victim impact statement read into court by Desautels, Fontaine's mother, Lana Fontaine, said her daughter was beautiful and had a smile that was contagious.

She said the loss of her daughter brings her pain every day and she does not think she will ever find forgiveness.

"I will never hear her tell me again, 'I love you, mommy."'

Justice Gerald Chartier reserved his decision on sentencing until May 17.

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With files from Shane Gibson