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How the death of Tina Fontaine has finally forced it to face its festering race problem.

Nancy Macdonald

“Oh Goddd how long are aboriginal people going to use what happened as a crutch to suck more money out of Canadians?” Winnipeg teacher Brad Badiuk wrote on Facebook last month. “They have contributed NOTHING to the development of Canada. Just standing with their hand out. Get to work, tear the treaties and shut the FK up already. Why am I on the hook for their cultural support?”

Another day in Winnipeg, another hateful screed against the city’s growing indigenous population. This one from a teacher (now on unpaid leave) at Kelvin High School, long considered among the city’s progressive schools—alma mater to just about every Winipegger of note, from Marshall McLuhan to Izzy Asper, Fred Penner and Neil Young.

Badiuk’s comments came to light the day Rinelle Harper—the shy 16-year-old indigenous girl left for dead in the city’s Assiniboine River after a brutal sexual assault—spoke publicly for the first time after her recovery. She called for an inquiry to help explain why so many indigenous girls and women are being murdered in Winnipeg, and elsewhere in Canada.

Badiuk’s comments came while the city was still reeling from the murder of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old child from the Sagkeeng First Nation who was wrapped in plastic and tossed into the Red River after being sexually exploited in the city’s core.

They came after Nunavummiuq musician Tanya Tagaq, last year’s Polaris Music Prize winner, who complained that while out to lunch in downtown Winnipeg where she was performing with the city’s ballet this fall, “a man started following me calling me a ‘sexy little Indian’ and asking to f–k.”

They came the very week an inquest issued its findings in the death of Brian Sinclair, an indigenous 45-year-old who died from an entirely treatable infection after being ignored for 34 hours in a city ER.

They came in the wake of a civic election dominated by race relations after a racist rant by a frontrunner’s wife went viral: “I’m really tired of getting harassed by the drunken native guys” downtown, Gord Steeves’s wife, Lori, wrote on Facebook. “We all donate enough money to keep their sorry asses on welfare, so shut the f–k up and don’t ask me for another handout!” The former city councillor and long-serving, centrist politician didn’t bother apologizing. He lost, but not because of this.

For decades, the friendly Prairie city has been known for its smiling, lefty premiers, pacifist, Mennonite writers and a love affair with the Jets. Licence plates here bear the tag “Friendly Manitoba.” But events of last fall served to expose a darker reality. The Manitoba capital is deeply divided along ethnic lines. It manifestly does not provide equal opportunity for Aboriginals. And it is quickly becoming known for the subhuman treatment of its First Nations citizens, who suffer daily indignities and appalling violence. Winnipeg is arguably becoming Canada’s most racist city.

But indigenous activists believe Tina Fontaine’s death also marked a turning point in race relations; that, for perhaps the first time, the brutalization and murder of a 15-year-old was not dismissed in Winnipeg as an “Aboriginal problem.” Ironically, from the fall’s horrific events, a sense of unity has begun to emerge. Even Thelma Favel, who raised Tina, believes her niece did not die in vain. Meaningful change will not come easily, but all this holds the promise, however faint, of a more hopeful future for the city.

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Thelma, who never misses the suppertime news, tried to strike fear into the hearts of her nieces, Tina and Sarah Fontaine. She’d show them TV programs on murdered and missing indigenous women, clip newspaper articles. “It’s not safe out there for Aboriginals girls,” she’d caution.

In the end, even she was unable to protect Tina. On Aug. 17, the girl’s remains were pulled from the Red River’s murky waters near the Alexander Docks in downtown Winnipeg. The murder of the 15-year-old was only the most recent, horrifying example of the violence faced by Winnipeg’s indigenous community—a world apart from white Winnipeg. Police divers discovered her by accident: they were searching the Red for the drowned remains of Faron Hall, the Dakota man dubbed the “Homeless Hero” for twice saving Winnipeggers from the river that eventually took his life.


Tina’s body was found in the same spot where, in March 1961, the remains of Jean Mocharski were found—the first cold case from Winnipeg in a new database of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. The 43-year-old mother of seven had been beaten and stabbed. Like Tina’s, her murder remains unsolved. “We value dogs more than we do these women,” says indigenous playwright Ian Ross.

Thelma, an eloquent mother of three, and her husband, Joseph, had been caring for Tina and Sarah since they were three and four, when their father, Eugene, was diagnosed with lymphoma. (Their mother had left the girls as babies.) Eugene had been raising the girls on his own in Winnipeg, where he worked at a tire plant. He knew the girls would be better off with Thelma, his aunt, who had helped raise him.

In a handwritten note dated Nov. 21, 2003, which still hangs in a simple wooden frame in Thelma’s living room in Powerview-Pine Falls, about 100 km northeast of Winnipeg, Eugene signed over temporary custody of Tina, his “little monkey,” and Sarah, whom he’d lovingly nicknamed “chubby.” Tina, a beautiful wisp of a girl, flourished at École Powerview after Thelma pulled her and Sarah from their reserve school. Math was her favourite subject. Her boyfriend was deaf; the pair communicated by texting.

Eugene was a constant presence. He never missed Christmas or a birthday. But he never had the chance to bring them back home to Winnipeg. He became addicted to his pain medication and the alcohol he was using to cope. On Oct. 31, 2011—just shy of the four months doctors told him he had left to live—Eugene was beaten to death in a dispute over money.

Tina was left deeply scarred. “Two people were killed that night,” says Thelma. Last spring, Tina ran away twice to Winnipeg to visit her mom—a relationship Thelma encouraged, feeling the girl needed another parental bond after losing her dad. In early July, she allowed Tina to visit her mom in Winnipeg for a week: it was her reward for excellent grades that June. The night before she left, the family gathered to pray and ask for protection, as they do every night. The next morning Thelma gave Tina $60 and a calling card. “If things don’t work out, use the calling card and I’ll come get you,” she said.

When Tina didn’t come home, Thelma reported her missing to police. Little is known about what happened to her in the weeks after that. She cut off her long, black hair. Her family believes she began using drugs. Friends say she was working in the sex trade to earn money. She was failed repeatedly by agencies meant to protect her.

On Aug. 8, police came across Tina in a roadside stop: she was in a vehicle with a male driver who was allegedly intoxicated. He was taken into police custody. Officers let Tina go, even though she was listed as a high-risk missing person. A few hours later she was rushed to Children’s Hospital after being found passed out in a core-area back alley. Her family was not notified she was in hospital. When she woke, Child and Family Services placed Tina in a downtown hotel where she was allowed to walk away. (In March 2014, the average number of kids in city hotels was 65, up from 17 two years earlier. The bloated system simply cannot cope with the huge number of children in care in Manitoba. Almost 90 per cent of children in foster care in Manitoba are Aboriginal, the highest rate in Canada.)

Tina was last seen on Aug. 9, shortly after 3 a.m., by a new friend. “I want to go home to Sagkeeng, where I’m loved,” she told her. The friend says Tina was approached by a man who asked her to perform a sex act. Eight days later she was pulled from the river, identified by a tattoo on her back bearing the name of her father, Eugene.

On a recent frigid weekday afternoon, a 14-year-old Aboriginal girl, coming off a high after huffing gas, told Maclean’s none of her girlfriends have changed their behaviour in the wake of Tina’s murder, laughing at the suggestion. She’d known Tina. Her friends know Rinelle Harper. “That’s never going to happen to us,” she said. Within days, Winnipeg police would announce another missing Aboriginal girl last seen in the North End. She is just 14—missing more than a month.

Since Tina’s death, Thelma has refused to leave her tidy home on Louis Riel Drive. “Every time I leave the house I feel like I’m having a panic attack.” She can’t forgive herself for letting Tina go to Winnipeg. “It’s like somebody ripped your heart out of your chest. To this day, it’s like they’re stomping, stomping, stomping on it.

“They treated her like garbage, wrapping her up in a bag and throwing her into the river,” she says. “She wasn’t garbage. She was my baby.”

Tina’s story cast a spotlight onto the shameful state of life for many Aboriginals in Winnipeg, where disdain for poor, inner-city Natives has long bubbled just barely beneath the surface. When measuring racism, social scientists tend to rely on opinion polling and media analyses. Last year, for example, Winnipeg recorded the highest proportion of racist tweets of the six Canadian cities known for high levels of hate crime, according to data collected by University of Alberta researcher Irfan Chaudhry. (Manitoba recorded the second-highest rate of hate crimes last year, after Ontario, according to a recent report.)


It is difficult to isolate Winnipeg or even Manitoba in opinion polling, which tends to group the Prairie provinces (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) together. But from them, a deeply troubling portrait of the region emerges. In poll after poll, Manitoba and Saskatchewan report the highest levels of racism in the country, often by a wide margin.

One in three Prairie residents believe that “many racial stereotypes are accurate,” for example, higher than anywhere else in Canada. In Alberta, just 23 per cent do, according to polling by the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration (CIIM). And 52 per cent of Prairie residents agree that Aboriginals’ economic problems are “mainly their fault.” Nationally, the figure drops to 36 per cent.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan also report the highest number of racist incidents, according to polling conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. In the last year, nine in 10 Manitobans reported hearing a negative comment about an indigenous person. That’s compared with six in 10 in New Brunswick, according to that poll.

Generally, when groups interact, there is a correlating drop in prejudice as understanding grows, says Jack Jedwab, executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies. But in Manitoba, where 17 per cent of the population is Aboriginal—the highest proportion among provinces, and four times the national average—and where 62 per cent reported “some contact” with indigenous people in the last year, the opposite appears to be true. Just six per cent of people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan consider Aboriginal people “very trustworthy.” In Atlantic Canada, 28 per cent do.

Just 61 per cent of Prairie residents said they would be comfortable having an Aboriginal neighbour, compared with 80 per cent in Ontario, according to a recent CBC/Environics poll; and just 50 per cent would be comfortable being in a romantic relationship with an indigenous person, compared to 66 per cent in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

This was a particularly bizarre result, says Niigaan Sinclair, who teaches Native studies at the University of Manitoba; after all, he adds with a chuckle, one in two Manitobans has indigenous blood. In the end, we are who we think we are. Culture defines identity.

In Manitoba, the problem appears to be getting worse, not better, at a time when the Aboriginal population is the fastest-growing in the province. The province registered a significant decline in its opinion of Aboriginal people in the last five years. Just 13 per cent of Manitobans have “very favourable” views of Aboriginal citizens, the lowest share in the country, and down from 32 per cent in 2007, according to CIIM data.

So what explains the unusually high degree of discrimination? To Sinclair, it is no coincidence that Manitoba was the only province founded in violence. The failed indigenous uprising headed by Metis leader Louis Riel led directly to the even bloodier Northwest Rebellion 15 years later, creating generations of animosity. But the playwright Ian Ross believes this discrimination is largely borne of fear—“that Indians are getting something you don’t have.”

Earlier this fall, Robert Falcon-Ouellette, director of the University of Manitoba’s Aboriginal focus programs, hit the Grant Park Shopping Centre in Winnipeg’s south end to hustle for signatures for his mayoral nomination form. The 37-year-old was a late entrant to the election. He’d cobbled together a campaign staff—idealistic political neophytes he knew from academia and activists he’d met at last year’s Idle No More rallies.

It was an ugly entry into politics. “I know you,” a shopper told Falcon-Ouellette, approaching him shortly after he arrived at the mall. “You’re that guy running for mayor. You’re an Indian,” he said, pointing a finger at Falcon-Ouellette. “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.”

Photograph by John Woods

Comments like these were the reason Falcon-Ouellette—who lost his mayoral run but is currently seeking the Liberal nomination for Winnipeg Centre, a riding long held by the NDP’s Pat Martin—chose to enter politics last summer. “I want to change perceptions,” he says. “I have my Ph.D., two masters’ degrees. I was in the army for 18 years,” says the Cree academic, who ties his long, chestnut hair in a tidy braid. “No matter what I do—for some people it will never be enough.” Initially, Falcon-Ouellette was written off as a fringe candidate. But his campaign took off when he outed Winnipeg as a city divided by colour, “opening a door on the soul of the city,” according to local reporter Sean Kavanagh.

Shortly after, the Winnipeg Free Press released poll results showing that 75 per cent of Winnipeggers consider the city’s divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens a “serious problem.” (Nationally, Manitobans are most worried by a rise in racism: 65 per cent, versus 48 per cent in neighbouring Ontario.)

In the end, Falcon-Ouellette finished third. Winnipeg chose Brian Bowman, an urbane, boyish-looking privacy lawyer over NDP veteran Judy Wasylycia-Leis by a wide margin. In the days after the election, Bowman was anointed the city’s first Metis mayor by local media, although his heritage came as a surprise to most Winnipeggers.

Bowman, in an interview with Maclean’s shortly after his swearing-in, took pains to downplay talk of a racial divide in the city: “Racism affects many communities around the country,” he said. “I don’t like the tag—‘divided.’ It predisposes that everyone in different groups thinks a certain way. That’s just not the case.”

In light of recent events, many in the city’s indigenous community were furious to hear this from the new mayor. “It’s heartbreaking and insulting,” says Charlie Fettah, one half of the indigenous hip-hop duo Winnipeg Boyz. “You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb to not see the divide. If Bowman is just going to come in singing Kumbaya, he’s the wrong mayor for this crucial juncture.”

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