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Tuesday 30 July 2019

The Red River murder and me

The body of Tina Fontaine was found weighted down in the Red River near Winnipeg, Canada in the summer of 2014. Joanna Jolly has spent five years investigating her case and others like it

It was a brief remark during the BBC Washington bureau’s morning editorial meeting that began my five-year journey into the dark underbelly of Canadian society.

“There’s been another murder,” a Canadian member of staff said when it was her turn to suggest a story for the day.

“Canadians are so racist.”

It was the summer of 2014 and I had just begun a six-month placement in Washington as the BBC’s online feature writer. The killing my colleague was referring to was that of a 15-year-old indigenous runaway, Tina Fontaine, whose body, weighed down with rocks, was discovered in the Red River in the prairie city of Winnipeg. She explained that Tina was not the first indigenous girl to be found discarded like this and that indigenous women were far more likely to be murdered or go missing than other Canadian women.

I was surprised. Despite a career in which I’d focused on gender-based crime and discrimination, it was the first I’d heard of violence against indigenous women in Canada.

Intrigued, I began to read up on the subject, coming across the story of Loretta Saunders, a 26-year-old university student from Canada’s Inuk population. Loretta had been writing a dissertation on why so many indigenous women and girls were being killed. Then, in February 2014, she was murdered. What had singled her and Tina Fontaine out for such a violent fate?

The answer, I discovered, lay in the legacy of Canada’s colonial past. Although Loretta had made it to university, her life had been marked by the kind of struggles faced by many indigenous Canadians. She had a poor and troubled background: she had been addicted to drugs and sexually exploited; she lived on the margins, often ignored or sidelined by social services and the police. Loretta was killed for money by a couple subletting her apartment in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They dumped her body in a bag by the side of a highway.

More research led to similar stories. There was the serial-killer pig farmer who preyed on the mostly indigenous girls who worked the Downtown Eastside red light district in Vancouver in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During this time dozens of women disappeared. When caught, the farmer boasted he had killed almost 50 of them. Police found the DNA of 33 women on his property. Women, many of them indigenous, have also gone missing in British Columbia, along what has come to be known as the Highway of Tears. They were hitchhiking or working the summer sex trade that sprung up around remote logging towns.

In Winnipeg, Tina Fontaine, had also lived on the margins. As a child she had been taken in by her great aunt when her parents struggled with addiction. When Tina was 12, her father was killed during a drunken fight. Despite repeated calls to social services, Tina received no support for her grief. Eventually she ran away and, despite attempts by social services to help her, was found dead a few weeks later.

I contacted my BBC editors in London, pitching to travel to Winnipeg to cover Tina’s story. My immediate editor was keen, but had no budget. The department head was less convinced, saying the story sounded too similar to the popular true-crime podcast, Serial. But I persisted, feeling it would resonate with a wider international audience.

And suddenly there was more news from Winnipeg. Nearly three months after the discovery of Tina’s body, another indigenous teenager had been found on the banks of a river. She had been violently attacked and sexually assaulted, but this time, miraculously, survived.

Winnipeg police agreed to give me access to the detectives investigating this attack and Tina’s killing. Finally, an editor in the DC bureau agreed to pay for myself and a small team to travel to Canada.

In April 2015, Red River Women was published as a BBC multimedia story and half-hour radio documentary. Focusing on Tina Fontaine and her family, it also told the story of other indigenous women and girls who had gone missing in the city, some whose bodies had also been found in the Red River.

A week later I received an email from a talent agency in Hollywood asking for the rights to the story. Unsure of what to do, I contacted an agent who suggested I write a proposal for a book. The idea of writing a more thorough account of what had happened to Tina was attractive, but the story felt incomplete. Although the Winnipeg homicide unit had been generous with their access, they had also been careful not to betray any hint of whether they were close to solving the teenager’s killing.

Then, in December 2015, I received an intriguing email from the head of the homicide unit, Sergeant John O’Donovan. “Look at these eight pictures and watch the news,” it read, pointing me to a link to an old newspaper gallery of Winnipeg’s most wanted criminals. An hour later the police announced that one of the eight, Raymond Cormier, had been arrested for Tina’s killing.

Raymond Cormier in a photograph provided by the Manitoba Court

I wrote back to O’Donovan asking if he could tell me the story behind the arrest? Cryptically, he said he would give me an answer only if I met him in person in Winnipeg. By this point I was on my way to Boston to begin a journalism fellowship at Harvard University. Figuring I could afford to fly from Boston to Winnipeg on a gamble, I set off.

I was in luck. Over lunch on a snowy January day, O’Donovan outlined the remarkable lengths he and his team had gone to to arrest Cormier. Canadian police had had a troubled history with the indigenous community; they had been accused of racism, abuse and even murder in the past. But O’Donovan, an immigrant from Ireland, was determined to address these failings. He explained he had set up the most elaborate undercover operation ever undertaken in the province to catch his man.

Finally I had a complete story. I signed an initial book deal with Penguin Canada and a second one with Virago in the UK. In September 2016, I flew back to Winnipeg and contacted the prison service for an interview with Cormier himself, not thinking they would say yes. But, late one evening, I received a message instructing me to drive the 200km across the prairies to where he was being held as soon as possible.

It was still dark when I was led into a cell where Cormier was finishing his breakfast. The guard left me alone with a panic button to press if needed. When Cormier realised I was not a local reporter, he lost his temper, throwing his toast at my head and screaming. For a second, I contemplated pressing the button, but instead adopted the submissive pose recommended by the BBC’s safety advisers – hands open, head bowed. After a few moments Cormier calmed down and agreed to talk.

For two hours Cormier spoke, hardly pausing for breath. He told me how he had met Tina on the streets of Winnipeg and how he had been attracted to her sexually, even though she was almost 40 years his junior. He described an argument in which he had screamed “go jump in the river”. He agreed he had a chequered past, and that he looked the part of a dangerous criminal. But he denied harming Tina physically, saying he believed the police had framed him because they were desperate to find a scapegoat for her killing.

It was true that Winnipeg police had been under immense pressure to solve the crime. The discovery of Tina’s body had caused a national outrage. The schoolgirl’s face had become the poster image for an issue that had been long-ignored by the authorities. Public opinion was now demanding a change.

When Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, took office in 2015, he immediately committed to setting up a national inquiry into finding out why so many indigenous women and girls were being murdered or going missing.

In Winnipeg, Cormier’s trial date was set for early 2018. In the months before, I returned to the prairies and the indigenous reserve where Tina had grown up to spend time with her great aunt, Thelma Favel. “I don’t understand why it had to take Tina’s death to open everyone’s eyes to the fact there’s a problem out there,” she said with some bitterness.

In January 2018, I took a three-month career break from the BBC and installed myself in Winnipeg for the duration of the trial. Having spent so long working with the Winnipeg homicide unit, I felt confident that there would be ample evidence to convict Cormier and that he would be found guilty within a few weeks.

But from the trial’s opening statements, it was clear that the case was more complex and difficult than the police had hoped. The Crown prosecutor explained that, despite the elaborate undercover operation, there was nothing more than circumstantial evidence to connect Cormier to the crime.

A rally for Tina Fontaine in Toronto, after Raymond Cormier’s acquittal

Tina’s body had been in the river too long for any forensic evidence to have survived. Detectives had not found a crime scene. Statements recorded by undercover officers were ambiguous. The only potentially strong link between Cormier and the killing was the duvet used to wrap her body. But the witnesses who testified that it had once belonged to him were inconsistent and unconvincing.

As the trial concluded, I joined Tina’s family and indigenous leaders to hear the jury’s verdict. In one of the most emotional scenes I have ever witnessed as a reporter, I watched the jury foreman break down in tears when she pronounced Cormier “not guilty”. Seconds later, Thelma’s wrenching cries of grief echoed through the marbled hall. Later, outside on the court steps, indigenous leaders delivered a damning indictment of their country’s judicial system. “This is not a Canada I want to be part of,” said one.

After the verdict I sat with Cormier and his defence lawyer in a Winnipeg hotel room. “I owe you my life,” Cormier said to his counsel, who explained that right from the outset they believed the police had operated with tunnel vision. A day later I met Sergeant O’Donovan for coffee. He was saddened, but resigned saying: “You can’t trust lawyers.”

With Cormier’s acquittal, my book changed from a straightforward account of the hunt for Tina’s killer to a detailed story of the teenager’s life and the police’s failure to secure a conviction. I spent months interviewing those involved and trawling through evidence and case notes. When I returned to the BBC newsroom in London, I found it too difficult to work full-time and write so I left to seclude myself in a cottage in Wiltshire. As winter approached, my entire existence focused on my work. I lived like a hermit, barely connecting to the outside world, as I painstakingly reconstructed the events leading to Tina’s death and the many twists and turns of the police investigation.

As I wrote, I became anxious. It wasn’t just that I had given up everything to concentrate on this one project; it was far more complicated than anything I’d ever attempted before. I felt a huge responsibility to be accurate and balanced. As I waded through pages and pages of police transcripts, I knew I had to weigh detectives’ belief in Cormier as the prime suspect with his consistent denials of guilt and eventual acquittal.

Most of all, I was conscious I was representing a community that had long been stereotyped by outsiders. Being fair to Tina became my priority. During a research trip to Winnipeg, an indigenous activist had challenged why I, a British citizen, was writing the teenager’s story.

“Do you want to profit off a dead girl?” she had asked, making me question my own legitimacy and my right to tell the story. Her words preyed on my mind, but eventually I concluded I was the only person who had full access to the police investigation. If I didn’t write it, who else would?

Joe and Thelma Favel and a framed tribute to their niece Tina Fontaine

August 2019 marks the five-year anniversary of the discovery of Tina’s body in the Red River. Since her death, much has changed in Canada. The inquiry established by Justin Trudeau has released its findings, announcing that Canada has been complicit in a “race-based genocide” against indigenous women. Blaming the crisis on deep-rooted colonialism and state inaction, the inquiry has put forward more than 200 “calls for justice” to the police, government and Canadian public as a whole. In Winnipeg, a government report into Tina’s death has also recommended a number of changes to the way indigenous youth are treated by police and provincial services.

August also brings the publication of my book, Red River Girl. It charts the police investigation from the discovery of Tina’s body to Cormier’s eventual acquittal, describing the world into which Tina fell before her death. My hope is that by shining a light on Tina’s story, Red River Girl brings more understanding of and compassion for all indigenous women, and the violence and marginalisation they face.


Red River Girl is published by Viking on 27 August

Further reading

Academic but good background – Indivisible: Indigenous Human Rights edited by Joyce Green.

The CBC has put together this great data site on Missing and Murdered Women which they update.

The CBC also does a true crime podcast called Somebody knows something – one of their episodes is on a famous murder of an Indigenous woman in Manitoba in 1971 – which is mentioned in Red River Girl.

The original BBC Red River Women story

Final report of the National Inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls which describes the crimes as genocide.