Manitoba

No inquiry necessary in Tina Fontaine's death, Manitoba justice minister says

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said the death of Tina Fontaine and the way her case was handled by the child welfare system is already being examined by the provincial children's advocate.

Decision sparks backlash from Indigneous, opposition leaders

The provincial children's advocate is already looking into the 2014 death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, and the way her case was handled by the child welfare system, says Manitoba's justice minister. (Winnipeg Police Service)

The Manitoba government has said it will not to call a public inquiry into the death of Tina Fontaine — a decision that sparked an immediate backlash from Indigenous leaders and opposition politicians after it was announced Wednesday.

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said the provincial children's advocate is already looking into the 2014 death of the 15-year-old Indigenous girl, whose body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg, and the way her case was handled by the child welfare system.

Under a new law passed by the Progressive Conservative government, the advocate's reports can now be made public. The probe into Tina's case is expected to wrap up in the coming months.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he hopes the provincial government reconsiders its decision and calls a public inquiry. He said the weight of such an inquiry could put more pressure on those in power to act.

"A public inquiry will get resourced, will get the significance and the weight and the heft that I think will really make this government follow up on the recommendations," Kinew said.

He also questioned whether the Office of the Children's Advocate, which is a provincial agency, would be able to dig as deeply into issues on reserves, which are under federal jurisdiction.

"My understanding is that the scope of what the children's advocate can do on-reserve is somewhat general. I think that unfortunately, with Tina Fontaine's life, there are issues that go outside the [Child and Family Services] system."

'It's a mistake'

Human rights lawyer Corey Shefman sided with Kinew in his belief that a children's advocate probe into Tina Fontaine's death could be too blunt an instrument. He said an inquiry would allow the analysis of how larger issues such as systemic racism were involved in her death.

Human rights lawyer Corey Shefman says the provincial government's decision not to call an inquiry 'is a clear sign that this isn't a priority for them and I think it's a mistake.' (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

"Their decision to not call an inquiry is a clear sign that this isn't a priority for them and I think it's a mistake," Shefman said.

The children's advocate might also miss some important details or choose not to publicly disclose others, he said.

"We don't know, and there's no way to hold them to account," said Shefman. "They're not accountable, really, to anyone except [the legislature]."

Manitoba Liberal MLA Judy Klassen said a public inquiry could make all aspects of Tina's life public and address the realities Indigenous people face.    

"We still have to check garbage bags beside the road. You know, that's what I do all the time. Am I going to find another young girl, another child, another young man in a garbage bag? People will start realizing that they can't just get rid of a body that way. They can't just disrespect an Indigenous person," she said.

Failed 'for far too long'

In a statement, Stefanson said it's clear the system needs to be improved, and the children's advocate will answer key questions.

'The Manitoba government acknowledges that Manitoba's child welfare system has failed Indigenous families for far too long,' Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said in a written statement Wednesday. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"The Manitoba government acknowledges that Manitoba's child welfare system has failed Indigenous families for far too long," Stefanson said in a written statement Wednesday.

"Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth Act, which will be proclaimed tomorrow, allows the children's advocate to publicly release the results of this important investigation and the province awaits this report."

Problems ignored for decades: chief

Assembly of First Nations regional chief Kevin Hart spoke to CBC from Sagkeeng First Nation, Tina Fontaine's home community.

He said the decision not to call an inquiry follows decades of ignoring a problem.

"All we have to do is go back 20 years to look at the [Aboriginal Justice Inquiry] and the [Child Welfare Initiative]. Why wasn't that implemented?" he said.

Tina Fontaine's body was found in the Red River in Winnipeg in 2014. She was an exploited 15-year-old who was in the care of Child and Family Services.

She was last seen by caregivers on Aug. 8, 2014, when she left a downtown hotel where she was in the care of a worker for a private company with a Child and Family Services contract. She told the worker she was going to Portage Place mall to meet friends.

Her body was found Aug. 17, 2014, wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down by rocks in the river.

Raymond Cormier, the man charged with killing her, was found not guilty last month and the Crown has said it will not appeal the decision.

Tina's death shocked the country and led to calls for justice and for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which is now underway.

The Manitoba government has said it will not to call a public inquiry into the death of Tina Fontaine — a decision that sparked an immediate backlash from Indigenous leaders and opposition politicians after it was announced Wednesday. 2:06

With files from The Canadian Press and CBC's Sean Kavanagh and Austin Grabish