Justice for Tina Fontaine was impossible. That’s why it’s important as a nation to look the soul crushing pain of what an acquittal means square in the eyes. Injustices time and time again were inflicted on Tina during her life. The failure of the Child and Family Services system to protect Tina is a starting point for the autopsy of the forces that contributed to her death. But first, it is crucial to collectively understand what an acquittal represents to Indigenous peoples. If mainstream society simply sees a tragic life, with a tragic end, concluded by a criminal justice system preventing a person whom was presumed innocent from being convicted, then the most important lesson will not be learned. The fact is that the 15-year-old Indigenous girl’s life, and tragic murder, are larger than life symbols of violence that Indigenous people, particularly women, girls, and two-spirit people face in Canada.
Since the jury found Raymond Cormier not guilty on Friday, February 23, 2018 many commentators, both as legal experts and political thinkers, have made it clear that the Crown did not have a strong case (http://winnipegsun.com/opinion/columnists/tina-fontaine-murder-case-never-had-a-chance; http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/raymond-cormier-acquittal-tina-fontaine-1.4548210).
On one view, a jury would have no other choice without forensic evidence, eyewitness accounts, or even a crime scene linking Cormier to Fontaine’s death. As a question of fact, it is hard to argue these statements. Some Canadians may take comfort in knowing that at least the justice system works, where there is a reasonable doubt of guilt, the accused cannot be convicted. Such solace is shallow.
Soothing a collective conscience by saying that there simply was not enough hard evidence to convict Raymond Cormier of murder misses the point that the protests sparked by the acquittal. The error is in isolating Tina’s story to a single case. For many Indigenous people, Tina is their daughter, their sister, their niece, or their friend. Tina’s fall through cracks in social services meant to protect her is unremarkable; she was not a fluke. Among Indigenous women and girls in Canada, Tina is not the only, or even one amongst a few, who left a community for the big city where CFS failed to support her, where she ended up in survival sex work, where she was relegated to the fringes of society, and where traces of her footsteps vanish quickly.
It is exactly there, in the profound lack of evidence, that there is a clear, unmistakable link between Tina and the estimated 1,200 MMIWGs. Police have notoriously struggled to solve Indigenous women and girls’ disappearances. When Vancouver’s Downtown East Side saw Indigenous women and girls frequently disappearing, police were downright dismissive. Ultimately, Robert Pickton was convicted of 6 counts of second degree murder and 20 additional second-degree murder charges were stayed (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/23/worst-serial-killer-in-history-who-fed-prostitutes-to-pigs-sparks-rage-by-publishing-book/?utm_term=.3b256719dc80). While rhetoric and awareness have improved social discourse, results have not changed. Cormier’s acquittal is a tragedy because the charges laid against him were an anomaly.
The fact that charges were laid does not reflect the overall pattern of MMIWGs’ cases. The effort police exerted in attempting to gain a confession bucks the apparent trend for law enforcement dealing with cases of MMIWGs. The lengths the Crown went to in collecting circumstantial evidence to establish the relationship between Tina and Cormier, connect Cormier to the duvet Tina was wrapped in, and illustrate the motive Cormier might had have for disposing of a witness both to the theft of a truck and his sexual interference with, Tina herself demonstrated how badly the Crown wanted a conviction. With the evidence available to the Crown, this is the best case that could have been put forward. It’s failure, from a legal stand point, is not surprising. But that’s not the point.
A conviction is Tina’s death is more than convicting Raymond Cormier of second degree murder. Finding guilt would give hope to families and communities holding on to the faith and hope of closure through the justice system for the disappearance of a loved one. Finding Cormier not guilty brings the life cycle of a MMIWG’s case to a close, that is to say there cannot, except in the rarest of circumstances, be closure. Even if a suspect is charged in another case, collecting the necessary evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is a daunting legal challenge.
That’s why finding Cormier not guilty is so painful: despite beating the odds with charges being laid, the justice system's due process protections which only buttresses the tragedy that vulnerable persons like Tina Fontaine experience: the system exacerbates the tragedy when its due process protections inure in such cases. We need to continue to interrogate the legacies of colonization and the ongoing punishment of Indigenous peoples. The criminal justice system cannot manufacture restoration for people who live with the daily injustice of deep marginalization in society; people like Tina Fontaine. On this point, Tina is indistinguishable from hundreds of other MMIWGs whose cases will never be solved.
For decades, Indigenous advocates have called for the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) to be taken seriously by mainstream Canadian society. When Tina’s body was found wrapped in a weighted duvet in the Red River, public demand for a national inquiry surged. There was hope for change, that the outcome would be different this time, that there would be justice for Tina, and that there would be closure for those who love her. All the love in the world cannot create proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Her killer will walk free, and that’s nothing new.
When commentators focus on the correctness of the legal system in a single case, their words are of no comfort. In fact, they put salt in a gaping wound. The real possibility that the killers of MMIWGs may not be brought to justice crystallizes in cases like the Cormier trial and becomes a symbolic reification of the values of systemic oppression . Until Canadians accept that our justice system is not arranged to protect the most vulnerable members of society, our nation will fail to comprehend the heartbreak Tina Fontaine represents. Healing and reconciliation cannot begin when non-Indigenous Canadians are unable to empathetically connect Tina Fontaine to the national MMIWG crisis, and what her story means on a human level.