'Grossly failed systems': B.C. Indigenous advocates decry acquittal in Tina Fontaine killing
B.C. justice organization says 'not mere tweaks, but full-scale, fundamental change' needed, following Vancouver rally Saturday
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A British Columbia group advocating for Indigenous justice says the case of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Winnipeg youth in government care found dead in 2014, is sadly "not uncommon" across the country.
And as outrage spilled out onto Vancouver and other cities' streets over the weekend at Friday's acquittal of her alleged killer, the B.C. Aboriginal Justice Council has renewed its calls for "fundamental" reforms.
"These systems need to change – not mere tweaks, but full-scale, fundamental change for our people," said the group's child and family justice co-chair, Nancy Sandy, in a release Monday. "… Tina’s story is one of grossly failed systems and intergenerational trauma. Sadly, this story is not uncommon for our youth in care."
The Anishinaabe teen, from Sagkeeng First Nation, was found dead in Winnipeg's Red River wrapped in a Costco duvet which trial witnesses said matched one owned by the accused Raymond Cormier.
She had been denied counselling services from child protection services after her father was beaten to death earlier that year, and had repeated interactions with justice, child welfare and police systems leading up to her death.
"Over the next year, Tina came into contact with justice, medical and child welfare systems," Sandy added, "all of which failed to take adequate care to protect this vulnerable girl."
Her case came within weeks of another controversial acquittal in neighbouring Saskatchewan, where the white farmer who shot and killed Indigenous young adult Colten Boushie on his farm was found not guilty, also by a jury. Gerald Stanley claimed his gun accidentally misfired.
That trial led to vows to reform Canada's jury selection process by the federal Attorney-General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, who represents the Vancouver-Granville riding and is a member of Kwakwaka'wakw nation. In the Saskatchewan case, the jury was seemingly all-white because defence lawyers were allegedly able to reject jurors who appeared to be Indigenous.
The B.C. Aboriginal Justice Council is urging Wilson-Raybould not to stop at jury reform, but to create a federal Indigenous Justice Action Committee "led by distinguished Indigenous lawyers and judges, to ensure that Canada’s legal system, including trial courts, are reflective of a justice system based on respect for human rights and fairness, and the principles of anti-discrimination."
In the murder case of Cormier, no DNA evidence tied him to Fontaine's death or the crime scene, and his defence lawyer cited Fontaine's drug use to argue that without a known cause of death she may not have been murdered. However, a police wiretap of his apartment recorded him telling another person he had sex with the underage teen, and that related to "why she got killed."
"I drew the line and that's why she got killed," Cormier said in the police recording. "She got killed, I'll make you a bet. She got killed because we found out, I found out she was 15 years old … It's right on the shore. So what do I do? Threw her in."
Saturday saw protests against the verdict across the country against the verdict, with many speakers lambasting Canada's judicial system for what they called repeated examples of injustice towards Indigenous peoples.
Other cases have drawn widespread ire, including that an Ontario man in 2015 whom an Edmonton jury found not guilty in the bleeding death of local Cree mother Cindy Gladue, 36. Last June, the Alberta Court of Appeal ordered a retrial, citing serious trial errors.
By contrast, another Alberta case last June saw 28-year-old Cree woman Angela Cardinal arrested, imprisoned for five nights, and forced to testify in leg shackles and handcuffs at her own sexual assault trial, in which she was the accuser.
Founded in 2015, the B.C. Aboriginal Justice Council is made up of the Assembly of First Nations, First Nations Summit, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, and the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C.