Andrew Lodge: Tina Fontaine and how Stephen Harper got it wrong
Tina Fontaine was laid to rest this past weekend. The 15-year-old aboriginal girl from a reserve north of Winnipeg was found a in a bag in Winnipeg's Red River recently. Police say it was a homicide.
To repeat, she was 15. And alone. Supposedly in government custody at the time of her death.
Stephen Harper, the man elected to look after his citizens, argued recently that we should not treat Fontaine's death as a "sociological phenomenon" but instead as a crime.
For the leader of a nation to imply, following the murder of a 15-year-old kid, and with more than a thousand aboriginal women missing or murdered in this country in the past decades, that we should not be looking at root causes, is beyond the pale. The fact that Fontaine was a ward of the state only adds to the obligation.
Is Harper out of touch? Does he not get it? Or does he just not care? It's hard to tell.
Tina Fontaine grew up in the small community of the Sagkeeng First Nation just north of Winnipeg. There, Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson says they have lost five women, either murdered or missing, in the past 20 years.
It's not just women, either. In fact, more aboriginal men have been murdered in this country in the past three decades than women. Tina Fontaine's own father was killed violently three years ago. There is not a day that goes by in this country where an aboriginal person is not a victim of a violent crime.
I have worked in Sagkeeng territory. Good people in a place ripped apart by tragedy, over and over again.
I now live and work in a remote aboriginal community in British Columbia. Everyone knows someone in our town who has died violently. These anecdotes are repeated around the country and are supported by statistics.
The average homicide rate for aboriginal people is seven times the Canadian average. Aboriginal people are reportedly twice as likely as their national counterparts to be victim of violent crime and more than twice as likely to be subjects of sexual assault. The real numbers are likely much higher.
This has got to stop. I don't know what an inquiry will produce. The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, written almost 20 years ago, laid out the catastrophic situation in stark terms. Things haven't improved since then and in many cases have gotten worse.
We need action now, not words. And it should be coming from non-aboriginal people. Including but not only from our government. We all have a responsibility to look out for our neighbours. Our brothers and our sisters.
Across the country, there are hundreds of missing aboriginal women. Mothers. Daughters. Sisters. Friends. There are high risk youth on the streets of every city in Canada.
The jails are filled with aboriginal men and women, vastly over-represented compared with the general population; incarceration rates for aboriginal people are between seven and eight times higher than non-aboriginals in Canada. Suicide rates among aboriginal people in some regions of the country are among the highest in the world.
If this doesn't make you weep, I am not sure what will. As a wealthy, so-called developed country we should be ashamed of ourselves. This is a crisis and it has gone on far too long.
After all, this country was built on land stolen from these people. As Canadians, we have a responsibility to try, at the very least, to make things right. The hallmark of a decent society is how we treat those who are most vulnerable.
Attempt to put yourself in the headspace of Tina Fontaine's loved ones right now. As a start, we need to walk beside people who have lost so much. Otherwise, nothing will change.