WINNIPEG — On a recent warm evening in Winnipeg a woman ran up to the Bear Clan Patrol in a panic asking for help to find her niece who had not returned home.
Patrol co-ordinator Melissa Stevenson says within minutes more than a dozen searchers wearing bright-yellow vests scoured the area, calling out the girl’s name until she was found on a nearby street.
The child’s face, Stevenson says, was small, innocent and full of potential. Stevenson almost cried because of how much the girl reminded her of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine.
“That potential for greatness will never be. We will just never know what Tina could be,” Stevenson says with tears running down her cheeks.
Saturday marks five years since Tina’s 72-pound body, wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down by rocks, was found in the Red River in Winnipeg.
Stevenson knew Tina as a child and is still connected with her siblings and cousins. For the last four years, she says, the close-knit group has met almost every month to try to come to terms with the killings of too many of their family members and to find a way to heal.
Stevenson was just starting out as a social worker when she met Tina, her sister and her cousins at the Indigenous Family Centre. Tina was very young, but she was full of love, laughter and life, Stevenson recalls with a smile.
It was a safe place and the smell of Tina’s grandmother’s famous soup would waft from the kitchen. But tragedy would strike repeatedly outside the centre’s walls. Four of the dozen or so young relatives were violently killed.
In 2007, the body of Fonessa Bruyere, 17, was found with multiple stab wounds on the outskirts of Winnipeg. Her murder is still unsolved. In 2011, 15-year-old Clark Stevenson was stabbed to death by another youth.
Tina’s body was found in 2014. Raymond Cormier was acquitted in her death last year.
In 2017, Jeanenne Fontaine was shot dead and her home lit on fire. Three men have been convicted in her killing.
“They were all young. They were all beautiful. They all got hurt in a very violent way,” Stevenson says.
“When we come together, we pray for safety. We pray for justice. We pray just to keep hanging on.”
Last year the relatives, who are now all adults, held a special potluck to release Tina’s spirit. This year, they hope to work on their own healing journey.
There will also be private mourning on the Sagkeeng First Nation in the house where Tina spent much of her childhood being raised by her great-aunt Thelma Favel.
“It’s another year without her in it, and a daily thing for us to kind of absorb that she’s never ever coming back. It hurts just as bad,” Favel says.
Favel and her family will reflect on Tina’s funny stories, big dreams and easy-going attitude. She says every memory of Tina is a favourite one.
“I just wish I was able to live all those things with her again.”
Tina was stolen too soon, Favel says, but her legacy has made lasting change.
The discovery of Tina’s body renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and revived the volunteer Bear Clan Patrol.
An extensive report released in March by Manitoba’s children’s advocate included five recommendations touching on justice, education, mental health and child welfare.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs created the First Nations Family Advocate Office. A 24-hour safe space for Winnipeg youth was dedicated in Tina’s memory last May.
“Tina’s dream was always to help kids and people and I think she’s doing it,” Favel says. “She’s not letting this rest.”
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press