In the past week and a half there has been a wave of stories out of Winnipeg that shine a spotlight not only on police practices but larger questions about the ongoing legacies of colonialism, structural violence and institutional racism that play out in this settler nation. More specifically, I am talking about Tina Fontaine as her case returned to the headlines last week with the sentencing of her father’s killers; and an admission by Winnipeg police that officers saw the missing teen and did not take her into protective custody—it is believed she was murdered shortly thereafter.
I will state here, at the outset, that I am not writing this article to blame these police officers for Tina’s death. On the contrary, I am writing this to join many other voices that are pointing out the need for systemic change in Canada.
For those outside of Canada—as this was a very high profile case—Tina Fontaine was a young 15 year-old Aboriginal woman from Sagkeenin First Nation in Manitoba. She was reported missing in late August 2014. A week later she was recovered after the Red River was dredged. She was found stuffed into a duffle bag. Tina’s death drew outcry and renewed calls for a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls.
According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada there are over 1,000 cases of (documented) missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls over the past 30 years in Canada. The case for a national inquiry has long held the attention of many Canadians both Aboriginal peoples and settlers—with dissent and agreement from different groups about the path forward. What there is agreement on, for many, is that the Federal Government’s recent response (following Fontaine’s murder) is unacceptable. As the National Post writes:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s position is that no such national inquiry is needed because each killing is an individual criminal act that must be investigated by the police, not studied collectively as if they constituted some diffuse “sociological phenomenon”.
In light of many recent charges against the police of not doing their job correctly—including last week’s announcement that Winnipeg Police Service will investigate its own officers after they appeared to not follow protocol prior to Tina’s death—it is unacceptable that the Prime Minister is placing this horrific situation/condition squarely in the hands of the police because: a) they are not equipped to address the types of widespread violence being levied against Aboriginal peoples including women and girls; 2) the violence wrought upon Aboriginal women and girls is not simply a “policing problem.”
In a study focused on sexual assaults, respondents indicated they received poor treatment by police and that the investigations were handled badly. There are many reports and allegations from across Canada of the police not responding to reports of missing Aboriginal women or girls and there are many other examples of racism experienced at the hands of the police. The strained relationships with the police need to be addressed and Harper is not assisting in that regard by leaving the matter in the hands of the police instead of elevating it to a national discussion and intervention.
Although there are many police agencies and officers undertaking innovative collaborations with organizations such as that between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Native Women’s Association of Canada, this is relatively recent work. The current situation in Canada is a legacy of settler colonialism and systems that have been set up to enact forms of structural, physical, mental and sexual violence upon the lives of women, girls, men and boys. Seen this way, it is imperative that decolonizing practices are undertaken including decolonizing policing practices.
What might this look like?
Police agencies could require that all police officers be required to take formal context-specific training to better understand the work they are being asked to undertake. For example, treaty training could help some officers (in ceded territories) to better understand the inherent rights of Aboriginal peoples, the role of treaties in securing those rights and the role of treaties in contemporary Canada—this could offer critical context to the locations and peoples for whom police are asked to protect. Further, officers need historical literacy to better understand the ongoing impact of colonialism, residential schools, and the sixties scoop. Again, there are many officers that are trying to undertake this type of work in the communities in which they live and police. But more formal mandates might help impact policing practices across Canada.
I want to turn attention back to Tina Fontaine. The layers of tragedy that surrounded Tina’s life make it clear that there are broader “sociological phenomena” at play, in her case and many others.
In the same week that Winnipeg police released information about an internal investigation into how Tina was treated by police prior to being murdered, a Winnipeg courthouse heard the sentencing outcome for the two men that murdered Tina’s father in 2011. Found outside a woodshed on Oct 31, 2011, Eugene Fontaine died as a result of a vicious beating. In a crowded courtroom of family members, media and the public, the sentencing included the impact of Eugene’s death on his daughter, Tina.
I will pause here to restate: within three years, the Fontaine family lost two family members to violence. The contexts surrounding this one family’s story highlights how these cases can not be treated as just police investigations. As discussed in newspaper articles, the context of Tina’s life includes many things not least of which was the role of Child and Family Services and the ongoing impact of Residential Schools in the lives of Aboriginal children and families. To talk about Tina’s case is not simply a police matter. She was murdered and that requires police involvement but the broader context(s) of violence demands a similarly broader audience and discussion.
In this entry, I wanted to highlight the ways in which the state is calling upon the police to take responsibility for the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. But as Tina’s case should highlight: there is only a small role for the police to play in what is a larger story in Canada. A story about the impacts of colonization, about reckoning and impunity in this settler state where it is all too common to see missing posters in your community for young Aboriginal women and girls; it is common to attend memorials and walks for young women and girls who went out one evening and were never seen again. Canada is a country where Aboriginal women and girls are found in duffle bags, dumpsters and ditches. And that is not simply a “police problem.”
An inquiry isn’t going to solve the situation—but it provides another venue for discussion.
There is a need for a renewed discussion and action in Canada—one in which settlers place themselves squarely inside to listen, learn and take action. This situation isn’t simply a “police problem” because a teenager being shoved into a duffle bag and thrown into a river whose name is then added to a memorial list and database is indicative of much more—it reflects a Canadian problem. Settlers and allies alike need to find a space to become part of this discussion; a space in which settlers understand they have long profited from the exploitation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada and therefore are compelled to join in solidarity with non-settlers in putting pressure the state to take meaningful action. Settlers can join in solidarity with those that have long raised their voices to speak up for the missing and murdered—join them in a call for justice which will require more than police actions to bring about meaningful change in this country.Note: I started to write this piece prior to the events that took place in Ottawa. There will undoubtedly be other policing stories to tell in Canada in the wake of those events.
 I would note here that I am clearly not distinguishing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal police throughout the article as all officers are subjected to the suspicion and legacy of bad police practices; and all police should be required to undertake these trainings.