The law has done its job, but there must be justice for Tina Fontaine

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TheStar,com – Opinion/Editorials – The best way to ensure a measure of justice for Tina Fontaine is to ensure that the inquiry she helped to inspire does not end up as a wasted opportunity.
Feb. 23, 2018.   By

There’s the law, and then there’s justice. As much as possible, the two are supposed to overlap neatly. But all too often, that just doesn’t happen.

In the legal case of R. vs. Cormier, a judge and a jury of seven women and four men applied the law. The result was the acquittal on Thursday of 56-year-old Raymond Cormier on a charge of second-degree murder.

From a legal point of view, most experts seem to think it was a predictable outcome. The legal case against Cormier was circumstantial, they say, not enough to find him guilty beyond the venerable standard of “reasonable doubt.”

But of course there is another case, one that raises questions of justice that go far beyond the confines of any courtroom.

In the case of Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old Indigenous girl whose tiny body, wrapped in a duvet cover and weighted down by rocks, was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg three and half years ago, there has been no justice.

Most obviously, no one has been held responsible for her murder. The Winnipeg police and Crown prosecutors failed to prove in court that Raymond Cormier committed the crime. But the fact remains that someone did, and that person is walking free. For Tina’s family, that itself is a reason for both grief and outrage.

But as many have pointed out, her death was just the culmination of a long tragedy, one that began even before she was born.

Her life, like that of so many Indigenous people in this country, was shaped by trauma and injustice that has been visited upon generation after generation. Her family was shattered by illness and addiction, and she ended up in foster care.

When she left her home in the Sagkeeng First Nation to go to Winnipeg, she was a vulnerable young teen. She was supposed to be under the care of Manitoba’s Child and Family Services, but they failed in their duty to her.

They put her in a hotel with scant monitoring and, all too predictably, she ended up in the city’s darkest and most dangerous corners. When she disappeared, the social workers charged with keeping an eye on her didn’t bother to tell her remaining family back home. They had to call to find out what had happened.

Police also failed her. At one point, while she had been reported missing, they came across her in a car with an older man but did nothing to return her to safety.

The litany of neglect and indifference goes on, enough for Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to declare that “we all failed Tina” and urge all Canadians to “confront the shame and tragedy of our country’s racism and treatment of Indigenous people.”

That’s fine, indeed essential. But the best way at this point to ensure a measure of justice for Tina Fontaine is to ensure that the inquiry she helped to inspire does not end up as a wasted opportunity.

Outrage at her death in 2014 was a crucial factor in prompting the Trudeau government to set up the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) two years later. The idea is to examine why so many women and girls have shared the fate of Tina — cast away by a society that puts little value on their lives.

It should be a great opportunity but so far the MMIWG inquiry has been known mostly for its own internal problems — a string of resignations and a lack of clear direction. So much so that several major First Nations groups called last year for a “reset” of the inquiry and replacement of its leadership.

The Trudeau government has refused to go that route, and recently the inquiry is showing encouraging signs of getting its act together. It has been holding regular public hearings and says it has already heard from more than 700 of the 1,321 family members and survivors who registered with it.

But its success will be measured not in numbers of people spoken to, but in how effective it is in sparking real change. The inquiry itself has reported that in combing through past reports, some of them decades old, it has compiled 1,200 recommendations to address the problems it is looking at. The issue isn’t more recommendations — it’s whether they are put into action.

The task for the inquiry, and the government, is to make sure it overcomes its internal issues and makes a convincing case for change. Tina Fontaine, and the other Indigenous women and girls who have shared a similar tragic fate, deserve no less.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/02/23/the-law-has-done-its-job-but-there-must-be-justice-for-tina-fontaine.html

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