A Little Girl Lost: How the Canadian Child Welfare and Justice Systems Failed Tina Fontaine

The tragic story of a young Aboriginal girl who fell through the cracks of a fractured system

Tina Fontaine was a young aboriginal girl from Winnipeg, Manitoba. At 15-years-old, her body was found in the Red River. She was brutalized, wrapped in plastic, and weighed down by rocks.

How did Tina, a young, beautiful girl with her whole life ahead of her end up in that river?

This case gained attention from child advocates nationwide. Through Tina’s unnecessary death, we learned how tragic the results can be when care workers and law enforcement fail to follow protocol.

A Troubled Beginning

To say Tina Fontaine had a rough start to life would be an understatement.

Her aunt Thelma Favel, who cared for Tina was quoted as saying that Tina’s family was “doomed from the beginning”.

Tina’s mother Valentina Duck, began abusing drugs and running away from home at a very early age. She was placed in foster care and it was allegedly known by her caseworkers that she was being sexually exploited throughout her young life in these care homes. in relation to the alleged abuse, legal action was never pursued.

At the age of 12, Valentina met the man that would eventually become Tina Fontaine’s father.

Eugene Fontaine was from Sakgeeng First Nation in Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was a survivor of residential schools and as a result, he began abusing alcohol and drugs at a very young age. At the age of 12, he left his home for the streets.

Valentina’s mother was concerned about the age difference and she felt had no control of the situation. Eugene Fontaine was 23-years-old when he and Valentina began their relationship. Two years later, when she was 14, Valentina gave birth to her first child.

Valentina’s mother believed Eugene was profiting off of Valentina’s sexuality. This suspicion was reported to Child and Family Services (CFS), who sent a caseworker to confront Valentina about the allegations. Valentina stated to CPS that Eugene protected her and “the streets were her only friend”.¹

The Cycle of Addiction

When Valentine became pregnant with their second child, the couple began to work on improving their lives. They started taking prenatal classes and going to addiction counseling.

On January 1, 1999, little Tina Fontaine was born.

Unfortunately, with little support services available to them, Valentina and Eugene could not handle the stress of family life and their addictions resurfaced.

When Tina was a one-year-old and her little sister was four-months-old, the children were taken by CFS after the parents neglected to return to pick them up from the grandmother’s house.

At only one-year-old, little Tina had her first experience in foster care. Four days later, the girls were returned back to their home without an assessment from CFS.

The following year, The children were again seized by Child and Family Services after Tina’s parents were seen staggering out of a house party with their children in tow.

The children were placed in a hotel room as a substitute for foster care. There were not enough foster homes to house many of the children that are in the system in Manitoba. As a result, hotel rooms were often used to supplement for foster homes.

Eventually, Valentina and Eugene broke up. Despite his past with exploiting Valentina as a young girl, the children were placed back into Eugene’s care without supervision. Tina’s mother was lost in addiction and did not see her children for many years.

Tina had seven brothers and sisters in total.

Eventually caring for the girls alone became too much for Eugene. The girl’s aunt Thelma and uncle Joseph Favel stepped in to help look after Tina and her sister.

A Fresh Start With New Struggles

Thelma and Joseph’s home, which was located on the Sagkeeng First Nation reservation (121 km northeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba), eventually became the girl’s safe haven.

Thelma and Joseph provided the girls with the loving and stable environment that they needed and loved the girls as if they were their own.

“Any good word there is out there in this world, that would describe Tina, to me, Tina was the perfect little girl.”

-Thelma Favel

According to Thelma, Tina loved school and did well there. She loved children and would often play games with them. Thelma said Tina was a person with a big heart.

However, child protective services were not much help to Thelma as she struggled to get help for the girls.

At one point, she attempted to get Tina tested for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and received no answer back about testing from CFS.

It seemed she was on her own in her goal to give Tina and her sister the life they deserved.

In 2011, when Tina was 12, a horrible tragedy happened: Her father Eugene was beaten to death by two men.

This was a turning point in Tina Fontaine’s life. Losing her father in such a brutal way impacted Tina’s life significantly.

She began skipping school and showing signs of being disturbed. Victim services have been criticized by Thelma and other people in Tina’s life for not stepping in to offer her counselling services after her father’s untimely death.

If Tina had gotten the help she required, would she have ended up in the Red River?

In a report released by Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth, it stated this about Tina’s situation:

“In the nearly three years of involvement since the homicide death of Tina’s father, victim services neither met directly with Tina nor did they arrange a single counselling session for her to help her manage her loss and grief”

Four months before Tina‘s death, Thelma reached out to CFS and asked them to place Tina into government care. Thelma was worried that Tina was experimenting with drugs and meeting men online. At this point, she felt she didn’t have the control or qualifications to help Tina.

When a Child and Family Services advocate met with Tina there was no mention of any of these concerns in their report.

A Broken System Yields Tragic Results

Tina was asked to write a victim impact statement for the courts to hear during Eugene’s murder trial. However, she had a difficult time putting her feelings into words.

Thelma or “Grandma” as Tina called her, asked Child and Family Services if they would help Tina write her victim impact statement. They refused to do this stating that they rarely get directly involved with a child’s personal issues.

Finally, counselling was arranged for Tina by CFS. Unfortunately, these services were only available in the city and Tina didn’t have a way to transport herself the 121km to Winnipeg.

At this time, Tina’s mother began reconnecting with Tina and attempting to have a relationship with her. Thelma and CFS allowed Tina’s mother access to Tina and she started going to visit her mother in the city of Winnipeg.

Unfortunately, Valentina’s lifestyle has not changed and Tina alternated between living on the streets and the hotels CFS placed her in.

Despite telling her Child and Family Service worker that she needed “a place where it feels like home,” the only options available were hotels and temporary shelters. In the three weeks, before she disappeared on Aug. 8, Tina was reported missing four times.

On July 31, 2014, Tina Fontaine was reported missing for the last time, to the Winnipeg police department.

On August 8th, two police officers stopped a vehicle for alleged drunk driving. Although Tina was a missing person and a minor in that car, she was not apprehended.

The following morning, Tina was found passed out and intoxicated in an alleyway by police. The 15-year-old girl was escorted to the hospital and then to a hotel room and left there without supervision. Tina checked out and was back on the streets within hours.

On August 17, 2014, the body of a young girl was found in the red river wrapped in be in plastic and weighed down by rocks. The body was identified as Tina Fontaine.

What Happened to Tina Fontaine?

In December 2015, a man named Raymond Cormier was arrested for Tina’s death. His arrest was based on taped confessions stating that he “threw her in the river” and eyewitness sightings pairing the 56-year-old man with the 15-year-old girl.

In February 22, 2018, Cormier was found not guilty of murder.

At the time of the trial, the cause of death remained unknown. Raymond Cormier’s lawyers argued that without a specification on the cause of death, it cannot be known for certain that Tina died as a result of an unlawful act, and Cormier should be acquitted “on that argument alone”.

After the trial, Tina’s family spoke to the media as Aboriginal musicians drummed traditional songs of comfort and sadness in Tina’s memory.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s Grand Chief Sheila North said it was a tremendously sad day for their people:

“This is not the outcome anybody wanted. The systems, everything that was involved in Tina’s life, failed her. We’ve all failed her. We as a nation need to do better for our young people. It might not be this accused person that took her life but someone took her life. That fact remains, and we must get to the bottom of it.”

The outcry from all people in Canada was loud. The Aboriginal people of Canada are a strong group of people who were ready to fight for Tina and all other children who have slipped through the cracks in the broken system.

The Aftermath

Tina’s case is one of the most talked-about cases of Canada’s broken child-welfare and justice system. Justice has yet to arrive for Tina and her family but after her death was publicized, the Canadian Human Rights Commission requested a full inquiry into the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

The constables who encountered Tina at the checkpoint before her death, were suspended without pay.

There is currently an action plan being created by the Canadian government to help curve the pattern of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its’ debut has been delayed but according to the newest press release, they are working diligently to release it soon.

The most heartbreaking event since Tina’s death is the congregation of friends and family of missing Aboriginal people at Winnipeg’s Red River to drag it themselves with homemade tools. Weekly, they are searching for evidence and bodies in a painstaking search.

As I have mentioned in other articles I’ve written on this subject, bringing awareness to these cases is very important to me. I have many aboriginal family members that I never stop thinking about as I write these stories. I have the utmost respect for what the Aboriginal people of Canada have gone through and I hope the situation will improve for all marginalized people.

In the meantime, I hope everyone will continue to educate themselves on what the First Nations people of North America have gone through. Share their stories, celebrate their culture, and buy the gorgeous handmade goods these people produce.

We are seeing healing among the stolen generations, and initiatives which are enabling Indigenous people to make their distinctive contribution to our national life.

-Malcolm Fraser

[1]: Cameron MacLean ·. (March 13, 2019). Systems failed Tina Fontaine’s family before she was born, report reveals https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/tina-fontaine-report-parents-1.5054126

[2] This post was originally posted on my Medium account.

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