Rinelle Harper survived a vicious attack. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)
Unprecedented response to the killing of one teen girl, and the attempted murder of another, indicates Winnipeg is ready to take the next step
On Canada Day, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine left Sagkeeng First Nation to visit her estranged biological mother in Winnipeg. She was reported missing one month later but slipped through the hands of police, paramedics and a social worker in two separate incidents on Aug. 8.
Her body, wrapped in plastic, was recovered on the banks of the Red River on Aug. 17, less than seven weeks after she arrived in Winnipeg.
On Nov. 6, 16-year-old Rinelle Harper, a Garden Hill First Nation student taking classes in Winnipeg, struck up a conversation with two young men in downtown’s Broadway-Assiniboine neighbourhood. They turned on her under the Midtown Bridge, where they sexually assaulted her, beat her, tossed her into the Assiniboine River and then beat her again when she managed to crawl out of the water.
On the morning of Nov. 7, construction workers found her alive but unconscious along the Assiniboine Riverwalk. She was taken in critical condition to hospital, where she pulled through.
Fontaine’s slaying and the attempted killing of Harper are just two of the more recent acts of serious violence committed in Winnipeg against indigenous women and girls, who as a group are more likely to come to harm than other Canadians.
But instead of simply being added to some grim list of statistics, these particular crimes managed to focus the attention of the entire city, province and nation on the persistent and seemingly perpetual violence inflicted against First Nations, Métis and Inuit women and girls.
The crimes committed against Fontaine and Harper — and the galvanizing effect they’ve had on efforts to reduce violence against indigenous women — are not just the local story of the year, but a Winnipeg story of national significance and Canada-wide resonance.
“The attacks on Tina Fontaine and Rinelle Harper represented a tipping point, not only in our city but also across the country. With one found dead in the Red River and the other left for dead beside the Assiniboine, there emerged a new current in the conversation around the issue of violence against aboriginal girls and women,” Winnipeg Free Press editor Paul Samyn said in a statement.
“The names behind the two faces of this national tragedy have the power to last beyond their generation by sticking in the consciousness of our readers, much like the names Barbara Stoppel and Candace Derksen still resonate in our community.”
For years, activists within Canada’s indigenous community have been trying to convince officials at all three levels of government to take more action to prevent violence against women.
In a report released in May, the RCMP quantified that violence over the past 30 years at 1,186 nationwide cases of murdered or missing indigenous women and girls. That led federal opposition parties to call for a national inquiry into the conditions that allow these crimes to occur: primarily, a disparity between indigenous Canadians and other Canadians in almost every standard-of-living metric you can imagine, including income, education, employment, access to decent housing, physical health, life expectancy, exposure to violence and rates of addiction and incarceration.
In Winnipeg, the most indigenous city in Canada by population as well as proportion, this ethnic disparity is not just highly visible. It’s a disturbing facet of urban existence that cannot be ignored, if the city is to attain any future success, socially and economically.
In recent years, a number of forces came together to draw more attention to this disparity. The most organized elements within the Idle No More movement drew attention to the historic relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. On a parallel track, the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission educated more Canadians about the destructive, generation-spanning legacy of the residential schools system.
The inquest into the hospital-waiting-room death of Brian Sinclair, which wrapped up in June, drew attention to the issue of systemic racism, even if that concept wasn’t overtly contemplated in the proceedings.
Then on Aug. 8, hours after mayoral candidate Gord Steeves pledged to rid downtown of intoxicated vagrants, his spouse’s four-year-old “drunken native guys” rant on Facebook was brought to light.
Tina Fontaine’s killer is still at large.
The fuse on the ethnic powder keg was set. The discovery of Tina Fontaine’s body on Aug. 17 — as well as the recovery of the drowned body of Dakota “homeless hero” Faron Hall on the same day — ignited that fuse, albeit in a surprisingly constructive manner.
“I think her death humanized the issue. Tina Fontaine was a young child. Regardless of race, skin colouring and background, we all love our children,” said Leah Gazan, the president of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, a University of Winnipeg instructor and one of the organizers of an August vigil for both Fontaine and Hall.
That vigil, at The Forks, attracted a multi-ethnic crowd estimated at about 2,000. Organizers look back at it as a watershed event for ethnic solidarity in Winnipeg.
“I looked around that night and for the first time in my life, I saw more non-indigenous people than indigenous people at an event about indigenous people,” said Niigaan Sinclair, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and another one of the vigil’s organizers.
“People were not feeling sympathy or guilt. They were taking action to be with one another at a very traumatic time for our community. For one of the first times in this city’s history, people came together emotionally and respectfully.”
In the wake of Fontaine’s death, Winnipeg’s city council endorsed a national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. Provincial leaders supported the concept as well.
The Conservative government, however, recoiled at the idea. Prime Minister Stephen Harper even declared violence against indigenous women was not a sociological issue. In doing so, he appeared tone-deaf to the concerns of ordinary people, especially in Winnipeg.
“You have so many people pushing on different fronts — the grassroots, the political level. It’s getting in the face of the average Canadian,” said Rebecca Chartrand, an indigenous educator who helped organize a volunteer effort to drag the Red River for bodies of missing women before taking a run at city council’s Point Douglas seat. She’s now seeking the Liberal nomination for the federal seat of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.
“Winnipeggers, in general, are infuriated by what appears to be a lack of political will supporting an inquiry or other initiatives at a political level.”
In Winnipeg, where the Métis Brian Bowman now serves as the city’s first indigenous mayor, one tangible measure was taken by the city’s new police commission, which voted unanimously this month to instruct the Winnipeg Police Service to beef up its investigation of cases of slain or missing indigenous women and also do more to protect indigenous women and girls.
Police Chief Devon Clunis accepted the recommendation — but quickly explained the police already do everything in their power when it comes to investigations.
Clunis said the city’s focus must be to address the historic relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, evoking the legacy of colonialism in establishing a modern divide in living standards that breaks down along ethnic lines.
Winnipeggers, the chief said, must be prepared to embark upon an uncomfortable conversation before standards of living can ever rise to the point where indigenous women live safer lives.
“Reducing the victimization and violence we’ve seen in the indigenous community is something the overall community has to tackle,” said Staff Sgt. Andy Golebioski of the police service’s community-relations unit.
“We have to go way beyond political correctness, though. We have to get down to it. Indigenous leadership must stand strong on this.”
Recognizing the role indigenous men play in violence against indigenous women, Golebioski’s unit has met with leaders of five of the seven First Nations that fall under Treaty 1 in an effort to create a consensus when it comes to condemning aboriginal gang violence in particular. The police are also trying to identify urban aboriginal leaders who will stand up against indigenous gangs.
On a parallel front, Gazan is working with Winnipeggers of all background to raise awareness of violence against indigenous women under the banner of a new movement called We Care.
She’s heartened by the public focus on the issue — but is only cautiously optimistic about tangible change.
“It’s dangerous to say Winnipeg is this pie-in-the-sky, rosy place,” she said.
“It’s great we’re talking about this, but now we have to move from discussion to action.”
Sinclair said he too is confident the entire city is keenly aware of violence against indigenous women as part of a broader shift in attitudes about the indigenous community.
“Change is happening faster than I ever expected in my lifetime,” he said. “But this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2014