The House

Midweek podcast: Tina Fontaine's legacy and Indigenous child welfare

Guest host Vassy Kapelos talks to Toronto Star columnist Tanya Talaga about a report out this week on the factors that led to 14-year-old Tina Fontaine's death in 2014, and how the federal government's Indigenous child welfare bill must seize the opportunity to prevent cases like Tina's from happening again.
Tina Fontaine's body, wrapped in a duvet weighted down by rocks, was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. (CBC News)
Listen to the full episode16:05

The details of Tina Fontaine's short life prior to her death at age 14 in 2014 were tragic enough for her great-aunt to suggest that her family was "doomed from the beginning" — but it was the child welfare system that failed her, not fate.

A report out this week is making recommendations to four provincial departments in Manitoba in an attempt to close the gaps found in the child welfare system. The federal government also is trying to address those issues through the introduction of its Indigenous child welfare bill last month.

Tina Fontaine spent much of her life in and out of government care. Her body, wrapped in a duvet weighted down by rocks, was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. Police arrested Raymond Cormier, a drifter and drug user, and charged him with murdering Tina, but a jury acquitted him and no one has ever been convicted in her death.

When children are put into the system, nobody knows what happens to them. That's absolutely unbelievable.- Tanya Talaga, Toronto Star columnist

Ottawa's legislation is meant to reverse the over-representation of Indigenous kids in foster care and give Indigenous peoples jurisdiction over child welfare in their communities.

Will the bill be enough to prevent the deaths of more kids like Tina Fontaine? Tanya Talaga is the Indigenous issues columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of Seven Fallen Feathers. Below is an excerpt of her conversation with Vassy Kapelos, guest host of CBC Radio's The House.

Vassy Kapelos: Between 2008 and 2016 in Manitoba, 546 children in the child welfare system died, whether by suicide, homicide, illness or accident. What should that tell Canadians?

Tanya Talaga: It should horrify Canadians. I almost couldn't believe it. These are children's lives, and that is an incredible amount in such a tiny province. That's just Manitoba. Think about all the other provinces.

VK: Will the federal government's proposed child welfare legislation address the kind of problems those numbers highlight?

TT: What I've heard from Indigenous leaders is it's really a mixed bag. It's better than what we currently have anywhere, but the problem still remains in exclusive jurisdiction. The time has come for First Nations, Inuit, Metis communities to be in charge of their own children. We should have always been in charge of our own children. But the fact that we are still fighting for that one true thing, it really is remarkable.

VK: Why is jurisdiction so significant?

TT: Think of it this way. Indigenous families right now, when children are taken into custody, they often don't know where their children go. When children are put into the system, nobody knows what happens to them. That's absolutely unbelievable.

VK: Based on what you see in the legislation so far, do you think forced assimilation will persist?

TT: The legislation can be fixed. There needs to be clarity when it comes to jurisdiction. Funding is one aspect of it. You cannot have jurisdiction over your own children if you don't have sustained funding so you can run culturally-based, appropriate care services. 

VK: Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan said that funding is something that would be worked out as agreements get struck between the government and various First Nations. Does that offer any reassurance?

TT: Not really. What does that mean in its entirety? Does that mean it can be changed? Does that mean it's only a two-year agreement or a five-year agreement or a six-month agreement? Who decides how long it will be? There can be no compromises with sustained funding. It has to be constant, and it can't be a program. These are children's lives, we're talking about forever.

VK: What conclusions should the federal government draw from the report into Tina's death?

TT: How many times do we have to read these reports on children we've lost? It's always a similar story, a story of a child falling through the cracks, a story of so many systems failing her. So many people failed her. Looking at the case, it was a jurisdictional nightmare. It's remarkable to me that we haven't figured this out yet. While this legislation does take a step forward, it just doesn't go far enough.

VK: What's your level of optimism that the legislation will change and that it will be a priority?

TT: I'm always optimistic that where there's a will, there's a way. We can see what governments can do. We've seen governments move quickly on other pieces of legislation. Children's lives are at stake. It's always been that way.

Tina Fontaine died in 2014. A report from the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth says in the years since, not enough has changed to ensure other children don’t die. 2:19