Thelma Favel hasn’t opened the curtains in her living room in years. Favel is the grandmother of Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old from Sagkeeng First Nation whose horrific 2014 murder is credited as the catalyst for the government to launch a national inquiry into the death and disappearance of thousands of Indigenous women in Canada. Sometimes, she still expects Tina to walk through the door. “If they’re open, I look out the window, down the road to see if she’s coming home,” she told Refinery29 during a telephone interview from her home in Pine Falls, MB. “It still hurts every day."
This summer marks her sixth without her granddaughter, whose body, wrapped in tarp and with rocks to weigh her down, was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg. (Her accused killer, Raymond Cormier, was found not guilty of second-degree murder in February 2018.) It also marks one year since the culmination of the inquiry that Fontaine’s senseless death brought about: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), the $92-million federally funded investigation tasked with examining the root causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.
Released one year ago today, the final 1,000-plus page report — which acknowledges the systemic racism and marginalization that contributes to violence against Indigenous women — called the deaths a Canadian genocide, adding that the government enabled these vanishings and murders. It outlined 231 Calls for Justice, recommendations and calls to action, to improve the quality of life for this marginalized group such as overhauls of the policing systems and improved access to social services.
I have no faith in the National Inquiry. I haven’t seen any action. How many more deaths is it going to take?
And yet, 365 days after it was presented at an emotional ceremony in Gatineau, Que., one where Favel stood on stage in honour of her late granddaughter, little action has been taken. “I have no faith in [the National Inquiry]. I haven’t seen any action,” says Favel. How many more deaths is it going to take?”
The federal government had promised the release of a detailed national plan on the anniversary of the report. Last week, it blamed COVID-19 for the delay. “We will continue to work with those partners, but people will understand that many of those partners are very focused right now on helping frontline workers, not on establishing the report,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in response to criticism from federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. “We will continue to work with them on the report, but the COVID-19 situation has made that more difficult.”
“Using COVID-19 as an excuse for delaying a national action plan — to me — is really like saying, well, the dog ate my homework,” former Chief Commissioner of the National Inquiry, Marion Buller, told CBC News. (It’s worth noting that action now could not be more crucial as COVID-19 has resulted in a surge of violence against women in Canada.)
Survivor of violence and advocate Stephanie Harpe, whose mother Ruby Anne McDonald was murdered in 1999, says she understands putting the priority on the pandemic. However, Indigenous women are still disproportionately dying: An Indigenous woman is 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely than a white woman.
These murders are largely ignored by the mainstream media and are under-investigated by law enforcement. Imagine the response if these were white women? For those affected, many feel the apathetic handling of the crisis is clearly due to their Indigenous identity. They feel they’re not valued in mainstream society, the consequences of the principles of colonization and its violent, systemic racist impacts that remain.
“Society is not safe for Indigenous Peoples right now. We’ve been dealing with a pandemic of our own for a long time,” said Harpe, a member of Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta now living in Edmonton. “I’ve been living through this trauma all of my life — I’m 43 years old — we continue to be exploited; we wake up everyday not knowing where our loved ones are.”
Frustrated with government inaction, Harpe co-organized the Convoy 4 Action: National Inquiry Calls For Justice 231, a socially distanced demonstration and call to action on June 3. Organizers expected approximately 100 vehicles to participate in a convoy weaving through downtown Edmonton and finishing at the Alberta Legislature building.
Until the government steps up, these demonstrations are necessary, the only way of ensuring action, say advocates. "It’s a grassroots process. The efforts to implement some of the solutions should be led by families and survivors and they need to be [solutions brought into law] and into every faucet of our society," said fellow convoy organizer April Eve Wiberg, founder of Stolen Sisters & Brothers Awareness Movement.
Favel is still holding out for tangible action from the government, organizations, and Canadians in general to help end the MMIWG crisis in her lifetime. She’s determined Tina’s death won’t count for nothing. “There is no justice in Canada for our people,” said Favel.
She’s 62 now, and had a stroke six months ago. She is now partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair, but says her grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep her going. Seeing their faces brings her hope in a world filled with pain and letdown, even though there were always be a grandchild missing. “I don’t want any more of our babies to go — I hope we can save as many children as we can.”