Red River Women

Each year, dozens of Canadian Aboriginal women are murdered or disappear never to be seen again. Some end up in a river that runs through the heart of Winnipeg.

It was one of those never-ending summer days that John O'Donovan relished.

It was August 2014, and the detective from Winnipeg's homicide unit had just finished Sunday lunch with his family and was preparing to walk his dogs, retired greyhounds.

But then the phone buzzed with a familiar number and O'Donovan knew his peace and quiet was about to end.

It was his duty inspector with news that a body had been found weighted down in a bag in the Red River, the river that runs through Winnipeg and is the lifeblood of the city.

Within an hour, O'Donovan was at his desk in the city speaking to officers and handing out assignments.

The body was in such an advanced state of decomposition it took four hours to determine it was that of a young woman.

It was another few hours before detectives could settle on a tentative identification.

“We didn't know who she was or how old she was, or how long she'd been in the water,” says O'Donovan.

The river did a lot of damage.”

A tattoo of angel wings on the back of the young girl pointed officers to a runaway, a 15-year-old school girl called Tina Fontaine.

Within days Tina's case was making headlines throughout Canada not just for the horrific nature of her death, but for what she had come to represent.

Tina Fontaine was from Canada's Aboriginal population - made up of First Nation tribes, Inuit from the far north and Metis, the descendants of French settlers and native Canadians.

Her murder was the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of violent attacks against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.

Between 1980 and 2012, nearly 1,200 Aboriginal women and girls were murdered or went missing, according to a report released last year by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

With Aboriginal peoples making up less than 5% of Canada's population of 35 million, this figure is astonishingly high - Aboriginal women are four times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other Canadian women.

Many feel the police figures are incomplete and the number of victims could be even higher.

Sitting at the gateway to the prairies of western Canada, Winnipeg - capital of Manitoba - has a larger Aboriginal population than any other Canadian city, and has gained the moniker Murderpeg for its high rate of violence.

“It's a working city, it's always been one of those frontier towns, it's always been a tough town,” says O'Donovan who moved to the city 30 years ago from the west coast of Ireland.

But, for reasons that he cannot reveal without compromising the investigation, Tina Fontaine's death shocked this hardy detective.

He will say only that “there is a feeling of outrage that a 15-year-old child has been killed”.

Months into the investigation, his wife pointed out to him that Tina was the only murder victim she had heard him refer to by her first name.

The teenager was not the first Aboriginal schoolgirl to have been murdered in Winnipeg, but the collective outrage that followed her killing marked a watershed for a city that had often shut its eyes to violence against Aboriginal women.

As officers continued working to piece together the timeline of Tina's final weeks, O'Donovan received another call.

“When I first heard the circumstances, I said, 'Oh God, not again,'” he says.

A teenage Aboriginal girl had recently been found half-naked and unconscious on the banks of the Assiniboine River just before the point it converges with the Red River in the centre of the city. She wasn't expected to survive.

“The temperature was very low, 27F (-3C),” he says.

“She was at the point of dying, it was the cold temperature that saved her life,” he says, referring to the ability of freezing conditions to slow down the metabolism and allow the body to start the healing process.

The victim, Rinelle Harper, was a 16-year-old schoolgirl. She had been out drinking with friends when she was lured to an isolated spot under a bridge by two young men.

Here they attacked her both physically and sexually.

She found herself in the river, though cannot remember whether she managed to escape or was thrown in.

When she made it back to the bank, the men attacked her again, this time leaving her for dead.

That night they went on to sexually assault another woman in a nearby alley.

The attack once again forced the issue of violence against Aboriginal women on to the front pages.

A shy and awkward teenager, Rinelle waived aside her right to anonymity to speak out in support of “the far too many young women who have lost their lives and can't do the same”.

For years Canadians had been aware of the vulnerability of Aboriginal women, but these two vicious attacks on teenage girls brought it all sharply into focus.

The country could no longer ignore it had a problem.

The Missing

Bernadette Smith stands on Winnipeg's Alexander Docks and stares out over the frozen sweep of the Red River.

She points out two locations.

The first is where Tina Fontaine's body was found last summer. The second is where she and other members of the Aboriginal community started to drag the river themselves, looking for clues about missing women.

Bernadette is searching for her half-sister, Claudette Osborne, who was last seen in July 2008 near the Lincoln Hotel on one of Winnipeg's inner-city highways, since renamed.

Claudette, who was 21 at the time, had only just given birth to her fourth child. The last anyone knows of her was that she was with a long-distance truck driver from Calgary.

“She was still bleeding and this gentleman - I don't know if I'd call him a gentleman - this man was trying to have sex with her and she was calling people at four in the morning asking for help,” says Bernadette.

But the phone Claudette was calling had run out of credit and it was days before her family picked up the messages. By then Claudette had disappeared.

Not knowing what happened to her sister has torn Bernadette's life apart.

It's the same for her friend Kyle Kematch, an Aboriginal man whose sister, Amber, went missing in 2010.

In the summer Kyle led the dragging process, using a bar with four hooks to snag debris on the river bed. He and Bernadette both think the police are not doing enough.

Unbelievably, her sister's disappearance is not the only loss Bernadette has had to contend with. Three other women in her extended family have been murdered or gone missing.

The best known is the case of Helen Betty Osborne, a teenager who was murdered in the northern Manitoba town of The Pas in 1971.

The crime was covered up for years, thanks in part to racism and indifference within the police.

When, years later, four white men were finally charged in connection with the murder, the Manitoba regional government officially apologised for the failure of its justice system.

Bernadette is also related to a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Felicia Solomon Osborne, who disappeared in 2003 and whose severed arm and leg later washed up in the Red River, not far from where Tina Fontaine's body was found.

And then there is her distant cousin, Hillary Angel Wilson, another teenager whose body was found in a field on the outskirts of Winnipeg in 2009.

The disappearance of Claudette and the murder of Felicia and Hillary are all currently under investigation by Project Devote, a special task force set up in Winnipeg four years ago to investigate unsolved cases in Manitoba where the victim was deemed to have been “vulnerable”.

A tour of the project room, jointly staffed by local officers and the national Royal Canadian Mounted Police, reveals pictures of all the 29 cases under investigation along with maps annotated with dots showing the last place each victim was seen, and, in some cases, where their body was found.

Most of the victims are Aboriginal women.

So far, only one case has been brought to court. Constable Jason Michalyshen says the challenges the team faces are considerable.

“Often with missing persons there's no scene for us to physically analyse or gather evidence,” he says.

“We understand this is devastating for family members, but it's equally frustrating for investigators when we have limited information.”

Bernadette is certainly frustrated. She feels the police who originally investigated Claudette Osborne’s case waited too long to collect evidence. And she's concerned that, despite its high profile and generous funding, Project Devote isn't doing enough.

“You don't get any answers from them. You get a phone call every month to say, you know, ‘We're working on the case... we have nothing further to tell you,’” she says.

Meanwhile, Bernadette tries to keep her sister's memory alive by holding vigils and concerts - and by maintaining pressure on the police.

“We really feel like because we're indigenous people in Canada that we're not taken seriously,” she says.

They just think no-one is waiting for us, that nobody cares about us, that we're disposable.”

But Tina Fontaine did have someone waiting for her.

Tina's Journey

An hour's drive north up highway 59, in a cosy one-storey house just outside Sagkeeng Aboriginal Reserve, Tina's great aunt, Thelma Favel, never stopped hoping she would come home.

The reserve, which has a population of nearly 3,500, is like hundreds of others across Canada, separated from mainstream society and largely self-governed.

Thelma raised Tina and her younger sister here. Years earlier, she had looked after Tina's father, her nephew, when her sister couldn't cope.

Then he had brought his own children to her after their mother, a sex worker in Winnipeg, started struggling to look after them.

Thelma, who by then had fostered dozens of Aboriginal children, had no hesitation in taking them in.

“She was a very, very happy girl, especially when it came to younger kids,” Thelma says of Tina.

“She had a lot of friends, she took kids who were bullied under her wing.”

The evidence of Tina's popularity is plastered over Thelma's wall. Pictures of Tina as a grinning infant, pictures of Tina with friends and a newspaper tribute written by her classmates praising her beautiful, warm, joyful smile.

But last year Tina's happiness drained away when her father, who she had remained close to, was murdered in a drunken bar fight.

She was asked to write a victim impact statement for the court, but struggled with it.

“She would start then crumple up the paper and say, ‘I don’t know how to even start this,’” says Thelma.

“That's when I noticed she started to drift away from me.”

Tina began talking more and more to her biological mother, and asked Thelma if she could visit her in Winnipeg. Because Tina had done well at school that term, Thelma agreed.

She gave her $60 and a phone card and told her to ring if she needed help. It was the last time Thelma saw Tina alive.

No-one knows exactly what happened to Tina in the weeks she spent in the city before her death.

She sent mobile phone pictures to her sister showing bruises, saying she'd been beaten by her mother and her mother's boyfriend. She sent pictures of herself taking drugs.

One night she was stopped by two police officers who found her in a car with an older man. Despite being listed as missing, the police let her go. This incident is now under investigation.

Hours later Tina was found again, this time passed out in a back street. She was taken into the care of Winnipeg's Child and Family Services, but managed to escape.

The last text she sent - to her sister - was for Thelma and her husband.

“Tell momma and poppa I love them and miss them, but I'm not ready to go home.”

Days later the news came that Tina's body had been found.

Even now Thelma thinks about the phone card she gave the teenager.

I keep thinking she's going to use it. That she's going to phone me. And I'm scared to miss that call.”

Before Tina was buried in Sagkeeng, Thelma kept her casket in her front room surrounded by the family pictures and tributes from her school.

She's chosen a photo of Tina for her headstone, and a photo of her father to place next to it.

Outside Thelma's house, the snow begins to falls on the massive steel pipes of a nearby hydropower plant and the bleak, isolated landscape.

Lonely figures of young Aboriginal teenagers hitchhiking dot the roadside - perhaps also on their way to a new and uncertain life in the city.

The Problem

Nahanni Fontaine (no relation to Tina) has spent much of her career trying to understand why Aboriginal women have become the target of so much violence.

As special adviser on Aboriginal women's issues for the government of Manitoba, she was instrumental in lobbying for an official monument for the murdered and missing women, which has been placed at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in the centre of Winnipeg.

It was unveiled in August last year, a few days before Tina's body was found a kilometre upstream and it's the only monument of its kind in Canada.

“What most people fail to recognise is that the establishment of Canada was actually formed on colonial imperialism, fuelled by racism,” Fontaine says.

Newcomers, explorers and settlers did not understand, she says, that many indigenous societies were matriarchal.

“Whereas indigenous people understood indigenous women and girls as life-givers, as sacred, as equal, we start to see that shifting to, ‘No they're whores, they're promiscuous, they're squaws.’”

The Iroquois word “squaw”, in particular, bothers Fontaine.

“It's the word for female genitalia.”

“We have a swear word that starts with a C and ends with a T that is essentially what generations of indigenous women and girls were called.”

Some historians question this interpretation of the word, but if misogyny is built into the language used to talk about Aboriginal women, she says, then no wonder it's become acceptable for men to feel they can do whatever they like with the bodies of Aboriginal women and girls.

She also points to a series of government policies that have served to discriminate against Aboriginal people, especially women.

Chief among these was the practice of taking Aboriginal children away from their own families and raising them in often brutal and abusive residential schools. This policy continued for more than a century, finally ending 20 years ago.

The idea was to bring Aboriginal people into mainstream society, but the effect was to isolate them further.

“My mum went to residential school and I grew up with very little affection,” says Bernadette Smith, reflecting on her own fragmented family.

I knew my mum loved me but she didn't know how to be a parent… because she'd never been parented herself.”

Other policies like the Sixties Scoop, where children were “scooped” up and sent away, often to be adopted in other countries, and the need for Aboriginal children to leave their homes on reserves to finish school, have also contributed to breaking down the Aboriginal family structure.

“Underpinning these policies was the idea that indigenous women aren't good parents, that they're not acceptable parents,” says Fontaine.

She says these practices go a long way to explaining why Aboriginal women and girls often find themselves living on the margins, vulnerable to exploitation, drawn into sex work and drugs.

But Aboriginal people have also been the recipients of generous government support, through treaties that compensate them for loss of land and mineral wealth.

This has led to a widely felt sense of despair in Canada - the feeling that nothing can fix Aboriginal problems, and that money is squandered because Aboriginal people have no wish or no ability to integrate into mainstream life.

This view has a degree of support even inside the Aboriginal community.

Thelma Favel is one of those who feels there's no excuse for the drugs and the violence that often permeate Aboriginal life, and that residential schools and other policies have become a crutch for those refusing to change.

“I know a lot of people in residential schools and they didn't drink or commit violence,” she says.

“Not everyone turns out that way.”

But she knows from her own family’s experience that life is more dangerous for Aboriginal women.

“There's this erroneous belief that the sexual exploitation or that savage levels of violence are the fault of the women themselves,” says Fontaine.

She would like the discussion to move away from the women and on to the perpetrators, the men responsible for the killings.

“We never discuss them. We never say, ‘Oh you're a psychopath, this is clearly your fault that we have this issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,’” she says.

We victim-blame.”

'Perfect victims'

So who is killing Aboriginal women and girls?

A view widely held in Canada is that Aboriginal women face violence mainly from their own community.

The figures compiled by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police bear this out to an extent. Between 1980 and 2012, more than 60% of the recorded murders of Aboriginal women were committed by husbands, family members or close friends.

But this leaves nearly 40% of women who were killed by strangers or casual acquaintances, a term that is often used to describe the sex worker-client relationship.

The figure for other Canadian women is 27%. Aboriginal women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by someone they aren't close to.

The serial killer Shawn Lamb, convicted in Winnipeg in 2013 of murdering two Aboriginal women (and the prime suspect in another case) described them as “the perfect victim” because no-one seemed to care if they went missing.

This may also be why a large number of Aboriginal women were among the victims of Canada's most infamous serial killer, the pig farmer Robert Pickton in British Columbia.

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm, when he was arrested in 2002. Some were hitchhikers, a number were prostitutes and drug addicts.

In Winnipeg too, many of the murdered and missing Aboriginal women disappeared while working on the streets.

For the past few years, the Winnipeg police force has run a counter-exploitation unit, patrolling at night to keep an eye on women at risk.

“There is nothing safe about women working the streets in the sex trade,” says Sgt Cam Mackid who has worked this beat for the past 20 years.

The chances are that women who work over a long duration are likely to be sexually assaulted, or worse.”

The unit spends each night driving around the known red light districts in Winnipeg's North and West End districts, befriending women, checking up on them and offering them a lift home. If the girls are under age, they refer them to Child and Family Services.

“When we speak to girls we ask if there's any way to get them off the streets,” says Mackid.

“We have no legal authority to take them off, but we do our best to make sure they're not taking risks.”

A 44-year-old Aboriginal sex worker, Candace Neil, says Aboriginal girls are often treated with little respect, as if they were a “low class”.

“They'll drive by and they'll throw eggs at us, or they'll throw rocks at us and tell us, ‘Oh you dirty little Indians, get off the streets,’” she says.

We're people too, you know. We deserve to be treated better.”

Winnipeg police say they are compiling profiles of the men who have been arrested for assault and murder over the last few years.

Until those are available, the only information about who might be preying on these women comes from the Salvation Army's “John School” - a programme set up to re-educate men arrested for paying for sex.

In 2013, the majority of men who came through the programme were married, Caucasian, blue-collar workers between the ages of 25 and 40.

Though a growing number were newly arrived immigrants from Asia.

There is a big difference, however, between hiring a sex worker and attacking or killing her.

All that anyone can say for sure, according to Sgt Cam Mackid and others who know the territory, is that Aboriginal women on the streets are in considerable danger.

As he puts it: “The streets are ground zero for predators.”

The Future

In January this year, Winnipeg was shaken by a front-page headline in the Canadian magazine Macleans describing the city as “where Canada's racism problem is at its worst”.

The immediate reaction from the city's mayor, Brian Bowman, himself part-Aboriginal, was to hold a press conference and promise to do better.

“We're not going to end racism tomorrow, but we're sure as hell going to try,” he said in a tearful address, surrounded by community leaders.

Although not everyone agreed with the Macleans article, many in Winnipeg were pleased the argument was finally out in the open.

“Was I surprised at the headline? No,” says Winnipeg's police chief, Devon Clunis.

I've been saying we need to have a meaningful, difficult conversation in the city.”

Clunis has pledged to address violence against Aboriginal women, though he feels the burden is falling unfairly on the police.

“By the time an individual from the indigenous community comes to the attention of the police, oftentimes it's too late,” he says.

It's a deep social issue that needs to be addressed from a holistic community perspective.”

The chief's views put him at odds with Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who has described the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women as a criminal, not a sociological one.

Clunis is not alone in his views, though. The provincial government of Manitoba has backed calls for a national inquiry, as last month did a UN Committee in a report which accused Canada of a “grave violation” of Aboriginal women's rights.

The Harper government is opposed to an inquiry, but whether one is held in future or not, Tina Fontaine’s death appears to have been a moment of awakening for Canada.

Huge crowds joined rallies to protest against the murder, and thousands of women tweeted pictures of themselves holding signs asking the question “Am I Next?”

Months later, the sense of outrage is less obvious, but in Winnipeg’s North End district, young Aboriginal men and women gather every Friday evening to ring a bell as a symbol of protest.

Among them is 23-year-old youth worker Jenna Wirch, who says she is determined to fight the perception that Aboriginal women are "the lowest of the low".

“I have to constantly have my back up against the world,” she says.

“At first I'm angry. Then I take a step back and think, how can I fix it? How can I break those stereotypes?”

Wirch’s energy and determination are impressive, but the threat against Aboriginal women and girls remains real. Since Tina was killed last August, three more Aboriginal women have been murdered in Winnipeg.

Two of the deaths appear to be related to domestic arguments. In the third the perpetrator is unknown.

And at the beginning of April, another 15-year-old Aboriginal schoolgirl was assaulted and left in a critical condition.

As the snow falls gently outside her home in Sagkeeng, Thelma Favel sits surrounded by pictures of Tina.

She's relieved that Canada seems to be waking up to the issue of violence against Aboriginal women, she only wishes this awareness had come sooner.

“It's going to be too late for Tina,” she says.

“But at least it might help somebody else, another child.”