WINNIPEG – Canada’s top aboriginal leader is accusing police of failing to protect a missing 15-year-old girl in the hours before she was last seen alive.
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says police didn’t do their job when they came into contact with Tina Fontaine days before her body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg wrapped in a bag.
Fontaine was in a vehicle pulled over by two officers more than a week after she was reported missing from foster care last August, but she was not taken into custody.
The Winnipeg Police Service said late Tuesday neither of the officers will face criminal charges. One has been suspended without pay; the other is on paid administrative leave while the disciplinary process unfolds.
“They should have done their job,” Bellegarde said following a speech in Winnipeg on Wednesday. “They are there to serve and protect our people.”
The Assembly of First Nations has called for an independent probe on how police handled Fontaine’s disappearance. The province has not said whether it will comply.
Fontaine’s death touched a nerve across the country and reignited calls for a national inquiry into nearly 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women. Families of some of those women, along with volunteers, took to the Red River in their own boats to dredge the water in the hope of finding answers police have been unable to provide.
There is a growing frustration with the justice system’s approach to missing and murdered aboriginal women, Bellegarde said. The way Fontaine’s disappearance was handled is “not accepted in today’s society,” he said.
“We’ve got to make sure we learn from the past and not make the same mistakes going forward,” Bellegarde said. “When it comes to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, they’re equally as important and valuable. Their lives are equally as important as everybody else’s.
“They should not be forgotten and put to the side.”
Fontaine’s relatives have said that a few hours after police came across the girl, she was found passed out in a downtown alley. Paramedics took her to a nearby hospital where she stayed for several hours before social workers picked her up.
Thelma Favel, Fontaine’s great-aunt, said the teen was taken to a hotel, but she ran away again the following day. Her body was found more than a week later. Police have ruled her death a homicide but have not revealed how she died. No charges have been laid.
The officers who came across Fontaine could have saved her life and should have been fired on the spot, Favel said.
The union representing the officers said they are already facing unusually harsh treatment. Maurice Sabourin, president of the Winnipeg Police Association, said it’s extremely rare to be suspended without pay if there aren’t any criminal charges.
The association is concerned intense publicity might be influencing police Chief Devon Clunis, he said.
“It has played a major part in the chief’s decision. It is a very political situation,” Sabourin said. “We have to keep in mind that the members were not the last people to have contact with Miss Fontaine.”
Police declined to make anyone available to comment Wednesday.