Three years ago, her father was beaten to death and discovered on Halloween, 2011. Eugene Fontaine was 41. Two men would later plead guilty to manslaughter in the case.
The Fontaines were aboriginal. Together, they tell the story of a homicide epidemic that has been ravaging indigenous communities for decades.
Between 1980 and 2012, 14 per cent of female murder victims with a known ethnicity were aboriginal, far exceeding their 4 per cent share of the female population, according to Statistics Canada.
But 17 per cent of male murder victims were also aboriginal during that time. In total, nearly 2,500 aboriginal people were murdered in the past three decades: 1,750 male, 745 female and one person of unknown gender.
StatsCan’s figures differ from those compiled by the RCMP, which released a report in May saying 1,017 aboriginal women had been murdered since 1980. It also noted that the “solve rates” for murders involving aboriginal and non-aboriginal women were virtually the same: 88 and 89 per cent respectively. The report did not address male murder victims.
Tina Fontaine’s death has inspired renewed calls for a public inquiry into the problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women, the ubiquitous five-word phrase that has catalyzed much of the public outrage around the condition of Canada’s aboriginal population.
The RCMP found that 105 aboriginal women were missing for at least 30 days as of last November in cases where the reason for their disappearance was deemed “unknown” or “foul play suspected.” StatsCan does not keep track of missing persons, and the RCMP declined to compile statistics on missing aboriginal men.
But statistics show that aboriginal men are murdered in greater numbers, and at a higher rates relative to the general population, than even aboriginal women. That has prompted some to wonder if the singular focus on one gender is misplaced.
Michele Audette, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, is among them. Asked why activists haven’t broadened their focus to include violence against aboriginal people in general, she said: “It’s a good question, to be frank with you. For me, if you’re a woman or a man, you don’t deserve to be murdered.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rejected calls for a public inquiry. At a press conference Thursday, he said, “We should not view this as sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime. It is crime against innocent people, and it needs to be addressed as such.”
Though violence is pervasive in aboriginal communities, cutting across demographic lines, aboriginal women are more likely to be victims of violent crime, including spousal abuse, than either aboriginal men or other women.
Twelve out of the 33 missing women whose DNA was found on serial killer Robert Pickton’s farm outside Vancouver were aboriginal. The Pickton case helped focus attention on the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women.
But when it comes to aboriginal homicide rates, the gender split tracks closely with the Canadian average. In Manitoba, where the Fontaine family lived, more aboriginal people have been murdered in the past three decades than non-aboriginal, though the province is just about one-sixth native. Seventy-one per cent of those nearly 500 aboriginal homicide victims were men.
Despite this, many national organizations stand by the focus on murdered and missing aboriginal women.
“The RCMP does not have plans to broaden the National Operational Overview on missing and murdered aboriginal women to include all Aboriginal Peoples,” said RCMP spokesperson Greg Cox in a statement.
David Gollob, spokesperson for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, said his organization would also stand by its call for a public inquiry that focuses on women. “It is conceivable that a public inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls could touch on broader issues of violence and victimization of aboriginal people,” he wrote in an email.
“However nothing refutes the fact that the nature and obvious severity of the rate of victimization of aboriginal females is an ongoing national tragedy.”