Collective grieving, calls to action mark vigil for Tina Fontaine along the Wələstəq

Written by Jared Durelle on March 6, 2018

Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay addressing the Blankets for Tina Fontaine Vigil in Fredericton on Feb. 26, 2018. Photo by Jared Durelle.

“Here we are in the so-called free and great country of Canada that just let a criminal go for murdering an Indigenous girl of the age of 15,” said Wolastoq Grand Council Chief Ron Tremblay at a Fredericton vigil for Tina Fontaine on Feb. 26.

Just two weeks after Fredericton residents gathered at a vigil in solidarity with the family of Colten Boushie, who was killed by a farmer in Saskatchewan, 50 people stood in solidarity with the family of Tina Fontaine. They gathered in front of Fredericton City Hall, along the banks of the Wələstəq, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, to hear elders, victims, parents, a poet and Chief Tremblay speak.

“The rally is showing our support for the Fontaine family and showing our love and respect from the east coast here through the Wolastoqey and Wabanaki nations,” said Chief Tremblay to the 50 people gathered, wrapped in blankets for Fontaine.

Fontaine was added to Canada’s list of missing and murdered Indigenous women in August 2014. In February 2018, Raymond Cormier was acquitted of her murder in Manitoba by a jury of his peers. Some commentators have called the trial suspect because the Crown moved too quickly to prosecute without evidence. Others are outraged to know that Fontaine was in care at the time she went missing and was later found murdered. Along with Cormier’s admitted abusive and sexual relationship with Fontaine, a minor, another shocking fact emerged at the trial: he was born in New Brunswick.

Addressing the youth in the crowd, Alma Brooks, a Wolastoq elder, said, “Your responsibility is to speak out! We need your voice. We need allies because clearly there is no justice for Aboriginal people in Canada.”

“There are huge changes that are coming. Everything in our lives is going to be changing, but we pray that they are for the better. We have 8,000 missing and murdered women and girls. What does that say to you?” said Brooks.

“It’s colonialism still unfolding, and as a white person, I’m here to give some solidarity,” said Norm Knight, “I think a person in a society has a responsibility to not just look out for themselves but to take care of the society they’re in and attending events like these is a part of that.”

When asked about the lack of reaction from municipal and provincial governments to the jury verdict, Erin Morton, who identifies as a white settler, said: “I think it is important to focus on alternative systems of governance. As we learned from the Fontaine and Boushie murders, we aren’t going to find justice in colonial works.”

“Your very first Prime Minister set forward a policy: ‘We need to get rid of the Indian problem’ and those words are still relevant today… This country was built on racism. Genocide occurred and genocide is still occurring when we have young people from our nations being murdered and their perpetrators being found not guilty,” said Tremblay as the temperature dropped and the mourners stood in freezing solidarity.

“We have to take action by not performing for the federal and provincial government. They use that to say that they have a nation-to-nation relationship with our people. We’re just pawns. We’re being used. They’re not here for the betterment of our people. They are here to promote corporations,” continued Tremblay.

Tremblay shared a teaching left to him by the late Gwen Sangatay Bear: “We cannot have one foot in our canoe and the other foot in their boat.”

The meaning of wearing blankets at the vigil for Fontaine was explained by Tremblay: “We gift our people in blankets and thank them for what they have done. Tina was wrapped in canvas and thrown into a river. We stand here today wrapped in our blankets sending the Fontaine family all our respect, love and prayers but more than my prayers, I send my words and actions that I perform.”

“Tina Fontaine was wrapped in a canvas, and her assailant admitted that he raped her. She was underage. I thought that was a crime but he was never charged for that. Why?” said Brooks to the crowd.

Tremblay observed that more women were in attendance than men. He called on men to stand up and work with children and women: “Prayers and ceremonies are great, but without the actions behind them, they are just kind thoughts. Our men need to stand up with our women and children.”

Melissa Beek, a Mi’kmaq poet from Metepenagiag, read her poem, My Stolen Sisters, at the Blankets for Tina Fontaine Vigil on Feb. 26, 2018 in Fredericton. Photo by Jared Durelle.

Melissa Beek, a Mi’kmaq poet whose family is from Metepenagiag, read a poem that she wrote for Fontaine and all missing and murdered women.

Holding an eagle feather close to her heart, she read: “My stolen sisters I think of you, I think of you when my mother says ‘be careful’/ I think of you when with five Mi’kmaq daughters I know she can’t keep them all safe from violence/ My stolen sisters I thought of you as he yelled ‘hey ponytail what’s the rush’/ I thought of you as his hand latched onto my waist length ponytail and suddenly that hair didn’t feel like my own/ My stolen sisters I thought of you while I struggled to untangle this body from trespassing hands that wished it harm.”

Brooks said she knew what it was like to lose a child. She had a son who was murdered seventeen years ago and she prays for the youth who need the support that was absent for him.

“Tina was in care of the child and family service agency. I just returned from Ottawa, where I was at a meeting about child welfare. I saw an empty chair that said New Brunswick. Other provinces had their regional chiefs there but nobody spoke for New Brunswick,” said Brooks.

“Fifty-nine per cent of children in foster care in Canada are indigenous. We have become an industry for the province. Our children just fodder for somebody to make a living… We need to be a part of these changes and we need to pay attention. They have to change the laws in Canada to accommodate our rights, our cultures, and our languages but to do that we need to be a part of it,” continued Brooks.

Matthew Comeau from Elsipogtog speaking at the Blankets for Tina Fontaine Vigil in Fredericton on Feb. 26, 2018. Photo by Jared Durelle.

Matthew Comeau, a young man from Elsipogtog, was the last to speak at the vigil. Two nights before, his community had suffered the loss of 22-year-old Brady Francis in a tragic hit-and-run.

“Our children are murdered, slaughtered like animals and their killers walk free with no charges. Before we get to the courts, we have the child welfare system that failed her. We have the effects of colonization, we have systematic racism, and intergenerational trauma and I still get people telling me to get over it,” said Comeau.

During Comeau’s speech, a vehicle stopped at the lights nearby and someone from the vehicle shouted, “That’s bull shit” to the crowd. Comeau unfazed resumed, “Some people are uneducated. Let them speak if they want . . . Her case and her investigation, the police didn’t give a crap, and the Crown took a horrible case to court. Who cares it was just another Indian? I want action. An underage girl in care getting murdered and dumped in a lake with no justice is wrong.”

Comeau expressed his fears for his son and how ready he was for the backlash against indigenous people for voicing their outrage. “We are a nation that sticks together and if we didn’t we’d be dead. This blanket was my mother’s. She’s gone now and she taught me to be an activist, and now I’m teaching my son to be an activist. The Premier says my reserve will have clean drinking water in 5 years. I’ve been waiting for 27.”

After the crowd chanted “Shame on Canada,” members of Pokuhulakon Witsehkehsu (Sisters of Drums) sang the Warrior Women’s Song and other traditional songs for Fontaine.

The office of Premier Brian Gallant and Aboriginal Affairs did not respond to a request for a statement regarding the court verdict on Fontaine’s murder.

Jared Durelle is a journalism student at St. Thomas University.

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