The Women Who Stood With Tina Fontaine

How the death of a 14-year-old Indigenous girl galvanized a community

Closeup of a woman's crossed arms, holding a photo of a young girl (Tina Fontaine).
Sagkeeng councillor Marilyn Courchene holds the report as Daphne Penrose, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, releases a special report on the death of fifteen year old Tina Fontaine at a release event at the Sagkeeng Mino Pimatiziwin Family Treatment Centre on the Sagkeeng First Nation, Man., Tuesday, March 12, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

On the Sunday that Tina Fontaine’s body was found in the Red River, in Winnipeg, her great-aunt and official guardian, Thelma Favel, had been spending the afternoon at her house on the outskirts of the Sagkeeng First Nation reserve. Outside, under a wide sky, the birch and aspen were turning yellow in the late summer sun. Thelma remained inside, too anxious to enjoy the good weather. Six weeks earlier, her baby, as she liked to call Tina, had gone missing. Thelma had repeatedly tried to find the teenager, contacting the police and the provincial child-welfare agency to register her as missing and in danger of exploitation. Now, it was days since she had heard any news, and her concerns for her fifteen-year-old charge were mounting.

Thelma had Wi-Fi, something of a rarity in the neighbourhood, and her house was a popular hangout for her foster kids, young relatives, and their friends. Around midafternoon, her grand-niece alerted her to a post on Facebook written by a cousin in Winnipeg. It said a body that had just been pulled out of the Red River had been identified as Tina. Thelma read it with a rising sense of panic. This was Facebook, she told herself, and you couldn’t always believe what people wrote. When she went to bed that evening, she decided that, as she had heard nothing from the police, she wasn’t going to allow herself to think the worst. But, the next day, two RCMP officers were standing at her door. Gently, they told her to brace for bad news. It was true that a body had been found, they said, and they could confirm it was Tina. As the first waves of grief flooded through her, Thelma felt like her heart was being ripped out of her body.

In the blur of days that followed, Thelma struggled to absorb the fact that Tina was never coming home. Sagkeeng First Nation had been Thelma’s home for decades, and now her door was constantly swinging open as family and friends arrived to express sympathy and make sure she was looked after. At the same time, she found herself fielding calls from journalists from across the country wanting to hear her reaction to the teenager’s death. Tina’s young and pretty face had sparked a national sense of outrage and mourning, and Thelma was beginning to realize that her grief would never be only personal. “I don’t understand why it had to take Tina’s death to open everybody’s eyes to the fact that there’s a problem out there,” she said with some bitterness.

In August 2014, when the news of Tina’s death filtered through Sagkeeng, it provoked a deep sense of shock and grief, but not surprise. The reserve already held the dubious distinction of having the highest number of missing and murdered women and girls of any Indigenous community in Canada. Activists spoke of how poverty, a lack of jobs, and overcrowding were forcing women to leave to find work, separating them from their community and making them vulnerable.

But it wasn’t only when they left that Sagkeeng women faced danger. It was impossible to grow up on the reserve untouched by domestic violence, abuse, addiction, mental illness, or suicide. Sagkeeng had been home to the Fort Alexander Residential School, run by nuns from the Catholic order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The school was an imposing white four-storey building that had towered above the grassland on the south bank of the Winnipeg River. Students were treated harshly, forbidden from speaking their own languages, isolated from their families, starved, and often sexually abused.

Thelma Favel had always counted herself lucky not to have been one of the Sagkeeng children forced to attend Fort Alexander. Born in 1958, the seventh of nine siblings in an Ojibway family, she was too young to attend the school, which was closing down by the time she started lessons. But she had first-hand knowledge of the damage it could do. Both of her parents had struggled through the residential system, and she watched her older brother George attend Fort Alexander as a day student.

By contrast, Thelma’s early schooling at the newly built junior high school on the reserve had been easy and enjoyable. But that changed when she was sent to high school in Powerview-Pine Falls, where the children teased her for a medical condition that gave her seizures. Thelma’s mother, who was raising her children alone after the death of her husband, solved the problem by sending Thelma to Winnipeg to lodge with another son and his family. Thelma was fourteen when she moved in an arrangement supervised by the provincial government’s child-welfare body, then known as the Children’s Aid Society. It was the beginning of a lifelong professional and personal association for Thelma with the agency, which would later become known as Child and Family Services (CFS). Over the years, Thelma’s view of the organization would darken, becoming bitter and angry when CFS failed to protect Tina. But, in the early days, she was grateful that they had facilitated her move into what would become a happy home environment.

In 1978, when Thelma was twenty, she married Joseph Favel, who was Métis. A year before the wedding, Thelma’s life changed dramatically when her sister asked her to help raise her eight children. It marked the start of Thelma’s long career as a professional foster mother and the beginning of a relationship that would bring Tina Fontaine into her life. One of the children she cared for was her nephew Eugene Fontaine, or Geno, who would later become Tina’s father. Thelma remembered him as a bright, funny child who would always say “I know” when asked a question, even if he didn’t have a clue what was going on. He joined a household full of other foster children and, by now, Thelma’s own two daughters and adopted son. Joe, a truck driver, was often away, so Thelma was left alone in a small apartment surrounded by children. “It was hectic,” she said. Some of her foster children had children of their own, leaving her with several babies to look after while they were at work. But she also remembered it as being fun.

It was a few years after this that Tina arrived in her life. Thelma and her family had returned to Sagkeeng, but her nephew Eugene, now in his twenties, had remained in Winnipeg, pursuing what Thelma called the “party lifestyle.” She knew he drank too much, had an addiction to prescription drugs, and had drifted away from his family. When he was twenty-three, Eugene formed a relationship with a twelve-year-old girl, from the Cree community, named Valentina Duck, who was living in foster homes and was known to have been sexually exploited from a young age. Valentina was fourteen when she became pregnant with their first child, a boy, who was quickly taken into care. The couple remained together, and on January 1, 1999, when Valentina was seventeen, she gave birth to Tina Michelle. A year later, she had another daughter, Sarah. Thelma vividly remembered meeting baby Tina at a family event and noting how sweet and well-behaved she was. But her parents’ relationship was unstable. Eugene’s addiction worsened, and his behaviour toward Valentina was violent and unpredictable. In 2001, the couple split. After spending some time with CFS, Tina and Sarah were returned to their father’s care. Eugene was still drinking heavily, and in 2004, he discovered he had cancer of the lymph nodes. He didn’t think he could manage alone, so he asked Thelma if she would consider raising his daughters.

Both he and Thelma hated the idea of his girls being raised in the child-welfare system. Thelma was developing an ambivalent attitude toward CFS. On the one hand, they had provided her with a job and income as a foster mother. On the other, she found them too eager to put Indigenous children into care. The agency seemed to prefer to do this, often taking children when they were babies rather than providing long-term support for families.

In the end, it was Joe who made the decision to take in the girls, telling Thelma they needed a proper home and that the months they had already spent with CFS were enough. When Tina was five and Sarah four, Thelma became their guardian through a private family arrangement. The Sagkeeng community rallied round, bringing over bags of children’s clothes, pyjamas, and toys.

On the first night, at bath time, Thelma wasn’t sure if she should stay in the room with the girls, but they called out for her to wash their hair. Afterward, she sat on the side of the tub and splashed cold water on them, laughing at how much they loved it. Although Tina was the older of the two, she was smaller than her sister. But Thelma could see that she was confident and strong. Her father had nicknamed her and her sister Monkey and Chubby. Monkey was a curious child who was not afraid to ask questions, grilling Thelma and Joe early on as to why her father referred to them as Momma and Papa as well as Aunt and Uncle. She quickly developed a special bond with Joe, teasing him and making him laugh. It wasn’t long before Monkey and Chubby were calling the couple Momma and Papa themselves.

Thelma, a devout Catholic, had the girls baptized at the St. Alexander Roman Catholic Church in Sagkeeng First Nation. She had fond memories of how she and Joe would sit with Tina and Sarah on their laps and ask them, “How come Momma and Papa love you so much?” to which Tina would reply, “Because we have Jesus in our hearts.” The girls were enrolled in nursery school and, from there, grade school and Sagkeeng Junior High. Tina was interested in her Ojibway heritage, and Thelma tried to teach her a few words. But her own knowledge was rusty, so they would usually end up speaking English. Thelma was more successful in showing Tina how to cook, and she remembered how the schoolgirl would bake blueberry muffins to share at family gatherings.

As Tina grew older, it was clear she had a love for small children, especially babies. In the summer, when Thelma and Joe would gather their relatives together on a beach by Lake Winnipeg, Tina would splash in the water with her younger cousins. Whenever Thelma’s great-grandson was brought to the house, Tina would immediately scoop the baby up into her arms. She held him so much that he became known as her baby, and whenever Thelma couldn’t find him, she knew he would be in Tina’s room. Tina confided in Thelma that she wanted to work looking after children, possibly for CFS, as Thelma had done. A few years later, when Tina was a teenager, she and Thelma would sit on the sofa and watch the nightly TV news reports on the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. Phoenix was a five-year-old Indigenous girl who had been kept in a basement, starved, and finally beaten to death by her mother and her partner. “I want to check on every one of those kids,” Tina had cried when she heard the details of the abuse.

If there was one issue that could still cause Tina and Sarah pain, it was that they didn’t see enough of their father. The girls understood he was gravely ill and couldn’t live with them, but they missed him deeply. He had tried to keep their relationship going, visiting Thelma’s home on Sundays to eat supper with his daughters. He brought them presents for Christmas and birthdays and spoiled them with their favourite candy and treats when he cashed his monthly welfare cheques.

But, in 2011, this family routine ended abruptly. On October 31, when Tina was twelve, Thelma was at home when her sister called to say she was with the police. She said officers had found Eugene’s body on the reserve. Thelma immediately jumped in her car and drove to her sister’s location: the old road that ran along the south side of the river. “That’s Geno,” her sister had shouted when Thelma arrived, pointing towards a shed at the back of a property which had been cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. Thelma could make out the shape of Eugene’s body lying on the ground outside. She later found out that her nephew had been on a three-day drug and alcohol binge with two friends and had fallen into an argument with them. The friends had ganged up on Eugene, kicking him in the head and tying him up behind a shed, where he died from his injuries. He was forty-one. Thelma had known his illness would take him early, but she wasn’t expecting to lose him so violently and so soon.

She collected Joe to make the short journey to Sagkeeng Junior High and wait for Tina and Sarah to be taken out of class. Finding the words to tell the girls was an impossible task. All Thelma could manage was, “Your dad’s not going to come around anymore.” Sarah asked why, and Thelma carefully explained that some men had beaten him up and killed him. At first the girls screamed. Joe held tight to Tina and Thelma hugged Sarah. Then Tina became quiet before asking why anyone would do that to her father. Thelma could find no answer. She tried telling the girls that Eugene wouldn’t suffer anymore and that he was at peace, but that only made Tina ask, “How can he be at peace if I’m not with him?” Hearing the girls’ screams, the school counsellor, Cindy Guimond, had come into the room to see if she could help. She found the two girls hanging on to Joe and Thelma, looking pitifully small and vulnerable, their faces still covered in the green paint they had put on, that morning, to dress as witches for the school Halloween party.

In the weeks that followed, Thelma was proud of the way the girls held themselves together as she planned Eugene’s wake and funeral. The proceedings were a mixture of Christian and community traditions. An Indigenous elder lit a sacred fire in her garden before Eugene’s body arrived to lie in her house for four days prior to the funeral. As friends and family members filtered in to pay their respects, Tina and Sarah busied themselves serving drinks and sandwiches. After the funeral, they helped make up a plate of food for their father so they could share a last meal, burning it on the fire according to the Ojibway tradition.

Though the girls appeared strong, Thelma could see they had been changed by the tragedy. On the brink of adolescence, Tina had already begun to distance herself from family life. Sometimes, when the reality of losing her father sank in, she would break down and cry. Other times, she withdrew into her own world. In Winnipeg, the Crown was preparing its case against the men who had killed Eugene, and Thelma learned that the men’s defence wanted to speak about the abuse their parents had suffered at residential school. This provoked an explosion of anger. “You can’t keep putting the blame on everything,” she complained to Joe. “Sometimes you have to take the blame yourself and learn to try to change yourself.” She knew plenty of people who’d been to residential school—including her own parents—who had not gone on to be violent or commit murder.

Tina wanted to attend the preliminary hearing, but the lawyers advised that the details were too graphic for a child to hear. Instead, she was asked to write a victim-impact statement for the court. She struggled to find the words to express her grief. “How can I tell the judge what those guys did to us?” she asked Thelma, and crumpled up the paper she was supposed to be writing on. Thelma told Tina that she would write the statement instead.

Tina was also struggling with anger, and for her, the pain was directed inward. Despite repeated calls to victim services, the teenager received no counselling for her grief. She had always been reserved at school, and the strain of her father’s murder was beginning to affect her studies. Cindy Guimond remembered how Tina already stood out because of her protective relationship toward her little sister. Now, the schoolgirl’s reputation was becoming fiercer. She lined her eyes with black makeup and projected a tough-girl image. “If she acknowledged you,” said Guimond, “you felt like you were one of the lucky ones.” Guimond remembered a time when she was called in to mediate between Tina and a group of girls who Tina thought were picking on Sarah. She had been impressed by the way Tina was willing to work through the problem and reconcile their differences, but this wasn’t the last of the arguments. Tina complained to Thelma that kids were saying they were glad her dad had been murdered. She was sent home from school for fighting, and Thelma felt the teachers were ignoring her side of the story. Tina was also being kept back in classes, even though she was clearly an intelligent child. After a few months of strained relations, Thelma decided the best thing to do was take both girls out of the reserve and put them into the mixed environment of the high school at Powerview-Pine Falls.

It was a decision that quickly paid off. Tina flourished in class, excelling in math and science. Thelma noted how, in her new school, Tina amassed a group of friends who were themselves outcasts and who had been bullied. It was as if she wanted to extend her natural protection of her sister to everyone in need. But the sadness that followed her father’s murder remained, manifesting itself in bouts of crying and isolation. Tina was no longer the happy girl who would skip down the hall and bake muffins for her family. Her moods remained dark. Sometimes her aunt, Thelma’s daughter Laurie, would take her on drives to talk about her problems, and Tina would open up and cry about her father. It was still possible to cheer her up by giving her a baby or a small child to look after, but she was never quite the same joyful girl that Thelma had come to know.

On New Year’s Day 2014, Tina turned fifteen. She was increasingly asserting her independence but was physically small and could easily be mistaken for an eleven- or twelve-year-old. For her birthday, she had asked for two special presents. The first she gave to herself. It was a tattoo of her father’s name, his birth and death dates, and angel wings inked on her back, between her shoulder blades, a tribute that would become crucial in confirming her identity later that year. The second present was something she requested from Thelma. She asked to be allowed to go to Winnipeg to reconnect with her biological mother.

Valentina Duck had not seen Tina or Sarah since Eugene had taken them to live with Thelma. But she had reappeared in their lives after Eugene’s funeral, when she phoned Thelma’s house to speak with her daughters, having managed to prise the number from the funeral directors. Tina had welcomed the call and the two spoke regularly. Even though she was settled with Thelma and Joe, Tina desperately missed having a relationship with her biological mother.

Valentina’s call came at a sensitive point. Tina was grieving her father’s death and, at the same time, was beginning to experiment with life beyond the sheltered confines of the reserve. The teenager was pushing back against authority, both at home and at school. In the fall of 2013, she ran away for the first time, finding her way to Valentina’s house in Winnipeg. Back in Sagkeeng, Tina struggled with the discipline expected from Thelma and Joe. The couple had always run an orderly household, with strict rules about finishing homework and chores before being allowed out. They had also banned alcohol. There had been a time when they drank socially, but they’d quit after Thelma suffered a stroke at the age of forty and was confined for months to a wheelchair. Tina rebelled by smoking marijuana and was suspended from school. “I just wanted to try it,” she protested when Thelma grounded her and confiscated her iPod in punishment. Tina’s moods remained dark, and during one family argument, she slashed into her forearms with a pen. She was desperate to spend time in the city and begged Thelma to let her go for her fifteenth birthday in January. She explained that it wasn’t just that she wanted a taste of city life: Valentina had told Tina that she had younger half-sisters. Tina, whose love of small children had not diminished, was thrilled at the prospect of meeting them.

For the first time since Tina had come into her life, Thelma called Valentina directly. She asked about her circumstances and whether she had a social worker she could check in with. Valentina was open in her responses, replying that she was in the process of getting her other children back from foster care and giving Thelma the name of her CFS case worker. Thelma said she called the case worker, who told her she was confident that Valentina was sober and no longer funding her drug habit by selling sex on the streets. And so Thelma agreed to let the girls go. Later, CFS staff said they had no record of this interaction.

By all accounts, it was a successful visit. The weekend coincided with one of Valentina’s younger children’s birthday, and Tina and Sarah helped organize a party with balloons and a cake. Tina’s aunt Laurie picked the girls up, noting that Valentina was living with an older man in a well-maintained house in the North End. When they returned home, Thelma observed how excitedly they spoke about their new little sisters, hardly mentioning Valentina at all.

But the visit stirred a restlessness in Tina. On the morning of March 2, Thelma went into Tina’s bedroom to hurry her up for school, only to discover that the teenager was missing. The previous day had been her father’s birthday. Thelma immediately called the police, then Valentina, and was relieved to find out that Tina was safe at her house. When the police brought the teenager home, Thelma wanted to know how she’d managed to reach Winnipeg on her own, but Tina just shrugged off the question. In April, she went missing again. This time, she was brought home by a friend, Larry Dumas, a deaf young Indigenous man she had met in Winnipeg. Again, Thelma asked Tina to explain why she had run. Tina promised to talk about it, but somehow she avoided the confrontation.

When Tina went missing in April, Thelma had contacted CFS to ask them to take the teenager into care. In May, a social worker met Tina and arranged counselling. However, the sessions were booked at a location seventy-five kilometres away, and Tina was unable to attend. Instead, she asked Thelma to allow her to spend more time with her biological mother and half-sisters. Thelma disliked the idea, but fearing the teenager would take off again, she struck a deal. Tina would be allowed to visit Valentina for one week in the summer holidays if her grades were good enough.

On June 30, Thelma’s daughter Samantha and son Brian volunteered to drive Tina and her sister down to Winnipeg. When the day arrived, as the girls were walking out the door, Sarah suddenly changed her mind, saying she didn’t feel comfortable with Valentina. So Thelma loaded just Tina’s bag into the back of the car and hugged her tight before waving goodbye. She could not have known it would be the last time she would ever see her.

Excerpted from Red River Girl: The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine by Joanna Jolly. Copyright © 2019 Joanna Jolly. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Joanna Jolly
Joanna Jolly is an award-winning BBC reporter based in London. Red River Girl is her first book.