What Happened To 16-Year-Old Tina Fontaine In Winnipeg?
Much like the death of Michael Brown spurred the discussion of racism in the US and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, in Canada, a turning point in race relations came with the gruesome death of 16-year-old Tina Fontaine who was found dead, wrapped in a plastic bag, floating in the Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
After running away from her reserve community of Sagkeeng after her father’s death, Tina Fontaine ended up in the care of Child and Family Services in Winnipeg. The troubled teen would continue to run away, ending up on the harsh streets of the inner-city and it eventually killed her. As the Winnipeg Press reports, homicide investigator Sgt. John O’Donovan called out to the public for help in solving the case.
“She’s a petite little thing — just turned 15, barely in the city for a little over a month. And she’s definitely been exploited and taken advantage of and murdered…She’s a child. This is a child that has been murdered … Society should be horrified,”
The case ended up showing how Child and Family Services, a government agency set up to care for children when families are not able to, was failing in its approach to helping kids, many of whom are aboriginal (Native American). It was found that there wasn’t enough staff to monitor kids in care, kids who too often were living in down town hotel rooms. Furthermore, it had been shown that despite the fact she had been reported missing, she came into contact with police twice before her death, and was let go. At every step of the way, the system seemed to fail Tina Fontaine. It also failed her family, with the agency not even telling her family in Sagkeeng that she had been missing, or even notify them when she had been found dead.
As the Winnipeg Press points out, Tina Fontaine, like at least 1200 other aboriginal women and girls, was another victim in a country where institutionalized racism against the indigenous population has long been a issue. And Winnipeg seems to be somewhat of an epicentre for the problem, with an article in the Canadian monthly magazine Maclean’s declaring that Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada back in January of 2015.
Racism Isn’t Only A Problem In The US. Canada Has A Dark Legacy It Is Fighting To Overcome.
Winnipeg, a city in the centre of Canada with a population closing in on one million, is where a Native population and non-Native population meet head on, with a clear and troubling divide always at play. According to the Winnipeg Press, 75 percent of those in the city surveyed said that division between native and non-native citizens of the city is a “serious issue”.
One example of the kind of rhetoric that aboriginal Canadians face is like something that would be heard at a Donald Trump rally. When now Liberal MP Robert Falcon-Oullette was on the campaign trail on his unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Winnipeg, he was met by a prickly, racist man at a mall.
“I know you. You’re that guy running for mayor. You’re an Indian. I don’t want to shake your hand. You Indians are the problem with the city. You’re all lazy. You’re drunks. The social problems we have in the city are all related to you.”
Dennis Lewycky, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, acknowledges that the recognition of a problem by 75 percent of the city’s citizens is a positive step, but is aware that knowing a problem is there doesn’t mean anyone knows how to solve the problem.
“I don’t think a lot of people really know how to address [the problem]. People are groping for ways to address that gap but I don’t think a lot of non-aboriginal people really have an understanding of what it will take.”
Winnipeg’s Mayor Brian Bowman has taken the issue seriously and has declared this year, one year after the Maclean’s article was published, as a year of reconciliation.
“”We had to choose between dismissing that characterization or acknowledging we needed to strengthen our efforts in building understanding and empathy, and celebrating the diversity that makes our city strong,” he said.
He then listed accomplishments made in the wake of the article, such as last September’s One: The Mayor’s National Summit on Racial Inclusion, the creation of the Mayor’s Indigenous Advisory Circle (MIAC), and numerous grassroots projects led by the community.
“We’ve been able to reignite the public conversation and dialogue” about racism to push it into the light and confront it better, Bowman said.”
The Root Of Canada’s Racism Problem Lies In Its Colonial History.
To understand the crisis that Canada is facing, one must look at the country’s history. What happened in Canada to the aboriginal population can be summed up as a cultural genocide. For decades, native children were removed from their families and forced to assimilate to European standards through the Residential School program. They weren’t allowed to speak their native languages or partake in their usual customs. Families and communities were torn apart. Many children were abused and died. As a people, they were decimated and degraded. In the 1960’s, the “60’s scoop” caused further damage when a systematic practice of removing children from aboriginal families and putting them into foster care with European (white) families was implemented. This practice lasted until the 1980’s. Colonization has proven to be horrific for Canada’s native population.
One only has to look into the prison system in Canada to see the results. Much like how African-Americans are over represented in US jails, in Canada, the aboriginal population is drastically over represented and the situation is steadily getting worse, according to a new Maclean’s magazine article.
While Canada’s crime rates have decreased since 1991, the number of aboriginal inmates is going up, with women increasing by 112 percent in the past decade. Even though aboriginal Canadians only make up 4 percent of the population, the prison population is made up of 36 percent aboriginal women and 25 percent aboriginal men in provincial and territorial jails, and in federal prisons aboriginal inmates account for almost 23 percent.
To put it in perspective, in the US, black men are 6 times more likely than white men to go to prison. In Canada, natives are 10 times more likely than non-native Canadians to go to jail, which is even higher than the rates seen in Apartheid-era South Africa.
“At every step, discriminatory practices and a biased system work against an Indigenous accused, from the moment a person is first identified by police, to their appearance before a judge, to their hearing before a parole board. The evidence is unambiguous: If you happen to be Indigenous, justice in Canada is not blind.”
Canada has a dark legacy that it is only beginning to tackle. Racism is alive and well, and efforts to tackle it are moving slowly. So, as the world’s attention is focused on the US and the Black Lives Matter movement, it is important to note that the problem is not specific to the US, and that countries like Canada have injustices and inequalities as well.