Keep Saying by Tanis MacDonald

On February 23, when I posted an article about the Raymond Cormier verdict on Facebook, I saw the image that spread out above the headline: a collage that included Cormier’s face wedged beside Tina Fontaine’s. I immediately wanted to delete it in an impulse to get him away from her. The two faces linked, now woven together in history, is exactly what I didn’t want to look at: injustice in a nutshell. But my fury is too little too late. I left the article up and felt the collage scrape against me.

I could taste metal when I read that she was housed in the Charterhouse Hotel downtown. When I read she was fifteen. When I read that she weighed 72 pounds. When I read that the argument between her and Cormier was reportedly about a bike he gave her. A bike like any fifteen-year-old might want to get places faster, to travel without the need to budget for bus fare, to visit friends or family far from where she was placed, or just to ride and feel the wind in her hair. Maybe down Assiniboine Street, where I biked when I lived on the other side of the river.

The Charterhouse Hotel is just two blocks north from where my friend John had an apartment in the 1980s, just up from Assiniboine, the river and the street. His parents kicked him out when he was seventeen because they were Christian and he was gay.

When I read that she was wrapped in a hotel duvet and thrown into the river I walked beside, that river I skated on.

As part of an assignment last month, one of my students wrote a brief essay about what it was like to leave home at sixteen and to have to be an adult years before she was ready. She didn’t write about why she had to leave.

My friend John used to point to the bushes by the riverbank on Assiniboine and say “That’s very cruisey.” I didn’t know what he meant until he told me.

When I read that Cormier ranted about Tina, I thought of the way one of Helen Betty Osborne’s killers confessed drunkenly, publicly, for years. When I teach Marilyn Dumont’s poem for Betty, I want my students to know Helen Betty Osborne was a person, a student their age. When I teach that poem I can see her sitting among them in the lecture hall. If you don’t know that poem, take a minute to listen to Marilyn reading it.

I was a Child and Family Services kid in Winnipeg, and I was adopted early. The system worked for me.

Tina Fontaine doesn’t especially look like Helen Betty Osborne. But when I see her photo, I see Tina Fontaine as every high school kid who could land in my first-year university classroom, the one where I teach Marilyn Dumont’s poem, a class where she’d hand in essays and I’d write on them Good point! and I like how you’ve figured this out. But that’s not going to happen. My fury too little too late.

We wouldn’t let her stay with people who loved her: her mother, Valentina Duck; her great-aunt, Thelma Favel. We ripped her away and stuck her in that grotty hotel, and let men like Cormier – who felt free to speak to her and about her as though she did not matter – lean on her, breathe on her. It’s been twelve years since I lived in Winnipeg full-time: nearly all of Tina Fontaine’s short life. Millions of Canadians failed Tina Fontaine, but most especially those of us in Winnipeg, or like me, from and so always of Winnipeg. We failed her with our assumptions and our temporary solutions and our refusal to look, with our systems of colonialism and capitalism that kept her from those who loved her.

I taught Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell this week, and I couldn’t begin to lead students into that book without acknowledging the death of Tina Fontaine alongside the death of Reena Virk, and remembering how hard Virk’s family fought in the court system for their daughter to be understood as valued, as loved: not a young woman with brown skin drifting away from her family. That narrative isn’t true of any of these young women, Tina or Helen or Reena. It’s an easy falsehood and it lets too many people off the hook; it honours fast news cycles that prop up our claims to white innocence.

Niigaan Sinclair’s article in the Winnipeg Free Press said it best: “One girl, thousands of deaths, millions of accomplices.”

When I read about the verdict, I knew we failed again and are failing other Indigenous kids right now. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get justice for Tina Fontaine. I am aware that now, six weeks after the verdict, I barely hear her name anymore. I was glad to hear that Rosanna Deerchild just did a segment on Unreserved called “Talking About Tina.

If we are really going to fight for a future that is female, then let’s ensure that we don’t forget the people we failed, the people who were lost to the systems we did not question. I’m not yet good at this myself. I need lots of practice. Let’s start by saying her name.

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Tanis MacDonald’s memoir in essays, Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City, will be published by Wolsak and Wynn in Spring 2018. She is also the co-editor (with Ariel Gordon and Rosanna Deerchild) of the multi-genre anthology GUSH: menstrual manifestos for our times (Frontenac House, 2018). Her creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared recently in Lemon Hound, Prairie Fire, Event, and The New Quarterly, and is forthcoming in Far Villages: Welcome Essays for New and Beginner Writers (Black Lawrence Press, 2019). Tanis is also the author of three books of poetry with the fourth, Mobile, forthcoming with Book*hug Press in 2019. She has reviewed and written about popular culture, poetry, feminism, reading, writing, film, and community organization since 1995 and is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and the 2017 winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Teaching. 

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