The Current

Injustice is a way of Indigenous life, say advocates dismayed at verdict in Tina Fontaine murder trial

Advocates say that 150 years of policy have created a justice system that will continually fail vulnerable Indigenous women and girls, but one lawyer argues the case against Raymond Cormier was always going to be difficult to prove.
Tina Fontaine, 15, was murdered and dumped in the Red River in 2014. (Facebook)

Story transcript

The not guilty verdict in the murder trial of Tina Fontaine shouldn't be a surprise, according to one advocate, because the justice system consistently fails Indigenous women.

"Injustice is a way of Indigenous life in Canada," said Niigaan Sinclair, an associate professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba.

Sinclair has been supporting Fontaine's family through the trial.

"This case was about something much larger than in the courtroom," he said, "this is about the treatment of young Indigenous women."

"This is about the way that 150 years of policy put Tina in that moment, and put her in a violent situation."

Fontaine's body was discovered in Winnipeg's Red River in 2014. Her 72-pound frame had been wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down with rocks. She was 15 when she was killed.

Raymond Cormier was found not guilty of second-degree murder on Thursday.

It was the one case where we thought: 'Here is the quintessential example of a victim, in every single way. Surely, surely she will get justice.'- Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba's NDP justice critic

The case garnered national attention — part a broader conversation about missing and murdered women in Canada.

Fontaine's death became a symbol for the entire conversation, a beacon of the dismay felt by Indigenous communities losing loved ones.

"This was a case that in many respects offered some semblance of hope and faith in the justice system for Indigenous peoples," said Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba's NDP justice critic.

Nahanni Fontaine, who is no relation to Tina Fontaine, has worked to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"It was the one case where we thought: 'Here is the quintessential example of a victim, in every single way. Surely, surely she will get justice.'"

"Unfortunately that is not what we have seen with this, and that is why this is so important."

Bernadette Smith, whose sister disappeared in 2008, shows Anna Maria Tremonti where 15-year-old Tina Fontaine's body was found. 0:48

What does justice look like?

The case against Raymond Cormier was always very thin, said Scott Newman, a defence attorney, with "little in the way of direct evidence."

Raymond Cormier was "quasi-homeless, with mental health concerns." (CBC)

Newman is the spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba; he pointed out that forensic evidence left a "gaping hole in the case."

"There are a number of DNA cuttings taken from the blanket that was wrapping Tina," he said, "and there were a number of different hairs that were seized, and when those were DNA tested they definitively excluded Mr. Cormier."

The Crown's case included wiretap evidence. Police recorded 62 interactions with Cormier, including one that was presented in court as a confession.

"It was Mr. Cormier saying I'll make you a bet: Tina died because of a reason," he said, "and the defence quite rightly said: 'Well why would you need to make a bet if this was a confession?'"

"'If this is the individual saying: "I killed Tina Fontaine," why would he say I'll make you a bet, she died because of a given reason,'" Newman said the defence argued.

"That doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of an alleged confession."

Red dresses were hung outside at the Alexander Docks in Winnipeg on Sunday, near a memorial for Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl whose body was pulled from the Red River last year. Her homicide remains unsolved. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

Newman pointed out that taking five or six clips out of 10,000 recordings risks clouding the context.

"You've got to remember Mr. Cormier was a poorly educated individual, rambling, high on meth a lot of the time, quasi-homeless, [with] mental health concerns."

"When you take an individual who's got those particular vulnerabilities — who might not make a lot of sense on his best day — to take disconnected comments out of context really pushes the bounds of belief and credibility and rationality to say: 'These are clearly confessions.'"

Newman thinks the ruling was "the just and correct decision based on the evidence that was presented to court."

"I think you have to look at what the definition of justice for Tina means," he said.

"Does that mean that we have to put someone in jail whether or not we have evidence that they did it? I don't think that's justice for Tina."

"I think the focus needs to be on making sure that our system," he said, "which is largely the same as it was when she was found in 2014, isn't creating more Tinas."

"This is multiple failures of the child welfare system, we have to make sure that doesn't happen again."

MKO Grand Chief Sheila North reacts as a jury finds Raymond Cormier not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Tina Fontaine. 2:13

What if the roles were reversed?

"The reason why it's the same system yesterday as it is today," Sinclair argued, "is because that is the exact same system that puts Indigenous children and young girls and women in these situations involving violence."

"And then at the end of the day, even though you know in any other case involving any other Canadian there is a motive and a means, that would be enough."

"But in this case somehow it's not enough, because it's an young Indigenous girl," he said.

Ministers have relayed their sympathies to Fontaine's family.

Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, said in a statement:

"We need to examine all the factors that lead to these violent acts, including policing, child welfare, healthcare and the social and economic conditions. As a society we can and must do better to improve outcomes for Indigenous girls and women."

Nahanni thinks that the verdict, along with the recent verdict related to the death of Colton Boushie, is part of a historical pattern where "Indigenous people's access to justice is somehow less than the rest of Canadians."

"If the scenario were reversed," she asked, "if this was a 15-year-old girl who was raped, who was murdered, who was wrapped up, who was thrown in the river, weighted down by rocks — if this was a non-Indigenous girl murdered, and the accused was an Indigenous man, I ask and I pose the question: what would be the response?"

"I suggest to you that the response would be entirely different than what we're seeing."

"It is actually even difficult for me to say it out loud, but it is a question that we have to pose, and it is an uncomfortable question and an uncomfortable experience that we as Canadians have to explore."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley, Vancouver Network Producer, Anne Penman, and Winnipeg Network Producer, Suzanne Dufresne.