‘Children are going to die’: Manitoba Child Advocate calls for change

A new report released Tuesday outlines the life and tragic death of Tina Fontaine, and subsequently the many systems that failed the young First Nations girl.

The Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth released her 115-page report, “A Place Where it Feels Like Home: The Story of Tina Fontaine,” during a special ceremony in the teen’s home community of Sagkeeng First Nation, located 120 km north of Winnipeg.

Daphne Penrose, the province’s children’s advocate, said the report focuses on Fontaine but could represent many of the children her office deals with.

“Not enough has changed since Tina died in 2014…this report mirrors the story of many, many other kids,” she said.

On Aug. 17, 2014, Fontaine’s 72-pound body, wrapped in a duvet and weighted down with rocks, was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River. This came days after she was reported missing.

Fontaine, who grew up in Sagkeeng, was in the city to spend time with her birth mother when she became a victim of exploitation.

“People come to understand the indicators of exploitation,” said Penrose. “When on the streets, nothing comes free.”

Penrose made in her report, including the need for better access to mental health and addiction services and a new protocol to address missing youth and sexually exploited youth.

Fontaine was in the care of child and family services (CFS) at the time of her death.

During her murder trial the jury heard CFS consistently didn’t know where she was, or if she was in danger.

In February 2018, the jury found Raymond Cormier not-guilty in Fontaine’s death.

In the 10 months prior to the teen’s death, seven missing persons’ reports were filed with police, including one the day after she was last seen.

This is too common for kids in care, Penrose explained.

“We need to be able to pull that apart and understand when a child is missing with risk those kids need responses…so that work can be prioritized and joint child welfare and police systems can work together to find kids and bring them back to safety,” she said.

Lack of services was also a major theme throughout the report.

Fontaine began to struggle with mental health issues and self-harm after the death of her father, Eugene, in 2011.

The report said support from victim services was not offered, nor was any counselling.

She was being raised in what was, by all accounts, a loving home by her great-aunt Thelma Favel.

When Favel reached out to CFS for help addressing Fontaine’s behaviour she was referred to several different agencies.

It was a common theme throughout Fontaine’s life.

The teen never received any counseling and eventually became an exploited runaway bounced through the system.

Penrose urged the government to take immediate action.

“What’s at stake is the lives of children,” said Penrose. “Children are going to die if we don’t make changes.”

Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson was on hand for the release and called the report a start.

“Do what you have to do. Protect those children,” he said. “Jurisdiction should have no issue. It shouldn’t be provincial, federal. We’re talking about kids here.”

“If we can get to that where the communities are being listened to, I’m sure the numbers would go down.”

Fontaine’s death was a catalyst for change.

It renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, saw the re-emergence of the Bear Clan Patrol and saw the formation of Drag the Red, a Winnipeg group who patrols the Red River in the summer.

Penrose applauded these grassroots organizations and called for the rest of Canada ensure the protection of youth in care.

“It is not this report that changes it…we all have a responsibility,” she said.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) released a statement calling for an independent inquiry into Fontaine’s death.

“The recommendations, and the public tracking and monitoring of the compliance of them by the MACY, are a start to finally deal with the death of Tina Fontaine,” AMC acting Grand Chief Betsy Kennedy wrote.

“However, it does not respond to all the questions and concerns. Manitoba not only must have the political will to only implement these recommendations, but also implement what Manitoba First Nations have identified in ‘Families First’, as well as fully respond to the report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG.”

Favel, Fontaine’s great-aunt and primary caregiver, did not attend Tuesday’s event. The family has asked for privacy during this time.

On Monday Favel told APTN News by phone that she wants Tina to rest now and hopes the release of this report will help with that.

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