When I first heard the not the guilty verdict for Raymond Courmier in the Tina Fontaine murder case, I felt punched in the gut—again—just like I did after the Colten Boushie verdict. My mind was racing all over the place; my heart felt bruised and stomped on the ground. Tina Fontaine was 15, just like my daughter, Leenah.
My daughter is at risk because she's Aboriginal and female My daughter was with me when I read the news that a jury had found Courmier not guilty of second-degree murder. I was struggling to digest how they could justify excusing an old man with a violent history who had bragged about raping Fontaine and whose friends had linked him with the comforter her body was wrapped in and weighted down with rocks before she was tossed into the Red River near Winnipeg, Manitoba. There had even been a call from Fontaine to 911, in which she reported Courmier stealing a truck, shortly before her disappearance. But this of course was all circumstantial evidence. It always is when non-Indigenous people are on trial in relation to the death of young Indigenous people.
I tried not to say anything to Leenah; I didn’t want to burden her. But she could sense something was wrong. She could see me pacing, losing my concentration on my school work. She asked what was wrong; I told her; and she came and sat with me on the couch, held my arm and knew I needed to talk. She said she was just as disappointed as me, “Sorry, Mom, it shouldn’t be like this.”
Just a few weeks ago, Leenah interviewed me for a school project she was doing on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. She could have picked any topic. Sometimes I wish she didn’t feel the need to pick such heavy topics; the last time she chose to research the intergenerational effects of residential schools. While I was proud of her, I also felt the maternal urge to shield her from the danger and the heaviness and that she was discovering was out in the world for young Native girls. At some points in her research, we’d look at each other and say, “Wow, this is really hard to take.”
For her project, I told Leenah my two near-miss stories—the times I was almost abducted. There was the first time, when I was a university student, at Carleton. I was walking through Ottawa’s Byward Market on a snowy night with a new French-Canadian friend. (Ironically, she had invited me out to a fancy French restaurant because she’d recently discovered she was part Native and wanted to ask me questions about what it was like to be Native in Canada.) After dinner, we were walking along a one-way street, when a carful of young white men stopped and started screamed at me—a “squaw”—they happened to see. They began grabbing and pulling at 18-year-old me from inside their car, shouting their sex requests.
Thankfully a Middle Eastern cab driver saw what was happening and ushered my friend and me back into the safety of his car. While they insulted my friend, they were clearly after me. I think it shocked her a bit how much I fought and screamed back, but I told her, they were going after me for a reason, and I was going to make them think twice before they tried targeting a Native woman again.
The second time was in Smithers, BC, when I was on an assignment for CBC TV as a 25-year-old reporter. One night, some men—a mix of Native and non-Native strangers—felt it was their right to take me out of the hotel bar/restaurant and bring me to a party to be their play thing. The leader, who was part Native, insisted I come to their party with him and his friends, and when I wouldn’t go, he started throwing insults at me, trying to make me feel small and stupid. I felt I was standing up for myself by telling him repeatedly I didn’t want to go, but at one point he got so incensed that he lunged and tried punching me in the face. It would have been so easy for them to just drag me out of the hotel—I weighed about 122 pounds. Thankfully a small group of truckers, one of whom was from my hometown of Kitimat, stood up and got in between me and the men, to stop them from taking me.
I’ve told Leenah many times over the years to be careful. But since interviewing me for her tenth-grade project she more fully understands where I am coming from. She now knows that I am lucky to be here. She unfortunately also knows that as a beautiful young Native woman, it’s a very real possibility that she will be targeted, just as I was, by a lone man or a group of men, who look at her as a disposable sex toy or punching bag, one whom they can rape and kill—apparently now with immunity.
Sadly, in Canadian society, it has always been made clear by the law-enforcement, political and criminal-justice systems that the lives of Native women are not as important to protect or to seek justice for. A 2017 CBC report put the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada at well over 1,000. This sows a fear in me so deep that I worry about my daughter’s safety every day.
Going by my social media feed, a lot of Native parents felt the same way as I did on hearing the Tina Fontaine verdict (on the heels of the Colton Boushie verdict):
“In this day and age, I never thought I’d have to go back to teaching [my daughter] how to just survive. I thought our grandparents and parents already endured all of that hardship to teach Canada it’s wrong. I’m scared for her generation—truly scared,” posted Brenda Duncan.
“I cried explaining to my 12-year-old son what kind of experiences he has to expect in his lifetime,” wrote Teresa Windsor.
“Heartbroken and no idea how to prepare my son for a world of racism where he could get killed and we are powerless to protect him. Canada is f*cked. Sorry, but I’m so angry with this corrupt, racist legal system,” posted Nicola Campbell.
So what do we Native parents want for our children?
For society to see them as equally deserving of protection and justice. Regardless of our backgrounds, histories, education levels, nationality, gender, we all deserve to feel safe in our country.
If all society were more honest with itself, then perhaps we could finally tackle the bias and discrimination that lead to the racism permeating this country, poisoning its institutions and social structures. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have had a small effect on government institutions and educational programs, other government efforts, such as the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, feel like token gestures for politicians to say that they did something.
Maybe if non-Native, settler and settler-descendant members of Canadian society stood up with us, engaged in dialogues, and truly demanded policy changes for social justice and equality, we could effect change. Maybe we could start with the foster care system, in which so many of our children get unnecessarily lost—removed as “precautionary” and “preventative” measures and bounced around between homes and hotels, much like Tina Fontaine was. A 2017 Stats Canada report revealed that while Indigenous children aged 14 and under represent just 7% of all children in Canada, they represent close to half of all the Canadian kids in foster care. There are currently more Indigenous and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) children in care than there ever were in residential schools. Why? Economic inequality, poverty, racism, sexism, and a heavy dose of intergenerational trauma, and the idea that colonial parenting styles and systems are better, for starters.
Maybe we should also hold police officers accountable when they have the chance, yet fail, to help a child before it’s too late. Tina Fontaine had called 911 to report that Courmier had stolen a truck, just before she went missing. Police had also stopped a car and found Tina inside with older men, and although she told them she felt uncomfortable with the men, the officers just let the car go.
And while we’re at it, maybe we shouldn’t stand for all-white juries in cases involving Native victims. This requires real policy change within a justice system built in accordance with a colonial government’s vision to silence and eradicate Indigenous peoples.
So while we’re still waiting for Canada to fix its broken systems, what do I tell my 15-year-old daughter? Or my 17-year-old son? For now, “don’t be too trusting, never be alone, be aware, keep your head up and be extra careful as a Native person in this society.” I truly wish I didn’t have to give my children such ominous warnings, and I pray they never have to experience something that could destroy them just because of who they are.
The glimmer of light I also share with my kids is that there are supportive and courageous non-Native friends out there—people who don’t just accept the status-quo; strangers who choose not to be just bystanders; and allies who join us in the fight for a safer and more equitable world. There are people out there who do see young Native people as the jewels that they are, children like Tina Fontaine, who was described as naïve and sweet, and who had been rocked by her father’s murder in the run-up to her own untimely death.
We need to stop judging Native children so harshly and blaming them for their circumstances. We need to stand together and do everything we can to change the dialogue and mindset that allows what’s happening to keep happening. And we need to realize we are all moms, dads, uncles, aunts, grandparents and guardians who love our children. There are enough resources—and there’s enough space—in this country for all of our children to be safe.