There was an outburst of emotion in a Winnipeg courtroom after a jury found Raymond Cormier not guilty in the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl whose body was pulled from the city's Red River in 2014.
The jury of seven women and four men delivered the verdict, as family and friends of the teenager from Sagkeeng First Nation reacted with sorrow and outrage. The trial lasted for just over three weeks.
"F--k you if you think you can get away with this," said her biological mother Valentina Duck, walking out of the room immediately after the verdict was read.
“My baby, my baby,” cried Fontaine’s great aunt Thelma Favel, weak with emotion and barely able to stand. Family members and supporters formed a circle around her. They prayed, and eventually, helped her get up and leave the courtroom. In the hallway, she sat down and continued to weep.
Outside the courthouse, Indigenous leaders stood side by side, delivering impassioned speeches on all the ways Canada’s institutions were responsible for what happened to the teenager.
"This is not the outcome anybody wanted. The systems, everything that was involved in Tina's life failed her." said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Sheila North. If Cormier wasn’t the one who took Fontaine’s life, North demanded the person responsible be found and that the institutions that were supposed to care for Fontaine be held responsible.
In a statement after the verdict, Winnipeg police said they had conducted an “extensive investigation” into Fontaine’s death, but that they would not comment on the case directly while the Crown decided whether or not to appeal.
Speaking with reporters, North passed on a message from Fontaine’s great aunt Thelma.
“She does not want to see any more violence against anyone,” said North. “She doesn’t want to see any retaliation, because that’s not what our people are about.
“She wants peace. She wants healing. She wants justice and we’re going to continue to look for that justice on her behalf.”
On Friday, Indigenous leaders and Fontaine’s supporters will gather outside the courthouse again to protest the verdict and honour her memory.
Federal Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett tweeted her support to Fontaine’s family, after the verdict was announced.
"Tina's is a tragic story that demonstrates the failures of all the systems for Indigenous children and youth on every level. We need to do better — we need to fix this," she wrote.
Fontaine’s case has been a lightning rod, raising questions about the province’s troubled child welfare system and police treatment of Indigenous youth. It reignited calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, and galvanized the Indigenous community in Winnipeg, which began protesting against the systems they believed were oppressing them.
Emotions are high around the verdict, which comes on the heels of the acquittal of a white farmer in Saskatchewan, accused of killing a young Indigenous man. That verdict sparked nationwide protests, with Indigenous people calling for urgent reform to increase Indigenous jury representation and other changes to the justice system. The jury that found Gerald Stanley not guilty was all white.
Teenager Tina Fontaine had travelled to Winnipeg with her sister in June of 2014 to reconnect with her mother after years of being apart. The death of her father in 2011 had devastated her, Fontaine’s great-aunt Thelma Favel told the court. While her sister quickly went home, Fontaine stayed behind, and when Favel didn’t hear from her, she got worried and called Manitoba’s Child and Welfare system for help, and Fontaine was taken into care.
She was last seen at the Best Western Charterhouse Hotel in downtown Winnipeg, where Child and Family Services had arranged a room for her. She told a social worker she was going to a local mall to meet some friends, and was reported missing an hour and a half after she missed curfew. She never came back.
When Winnipeg police pulled the then 15-year-old’s 72-pound body, wrapped in a duvet, from the Red River in 2014, she had been missing for nine days. Her body had been in the river for at least a week, the court heard .
Police found Fontaine by accident. They’d been looking for a man who had been seen struggling in the river. After Fontaine’s body was discovered, a group of Indigenous volunteers organized to search the Red River for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was formed in an effort called Drag The Red.
In the city’s north end, the Bear Clan Patrol, a group of Indigenous volunteers who hadn’t been active since the early 90s, began patrolling the streets again. The group of 15 volunteers set to patrol on Thursday was in a room, gearing up, when news of the verdict came.
“I wasn’t shocked when the verdict came down. For me, that’s the worst part because at this point, we as a community don’t have any expectation of justice anymore,” executive director James Favel told VICE News in an interview. “So what’s left for us? I’m numb. I don’t know what to feel. It’s so fucking disappointing, yet I expected it all along.”
More than a year after Fontaine’s death, Winnipeg police charged Raymond Cormier, a 56-year-old man with a lengthy criminal history including violent offences, with second degree murder in the death of Fontaine.
Cormier has maintained his innocence. He claims was the target of what’s known as a Mr. Big operation, a controversial investigation tactic used by police to get confessions out of suspects by creating a fictitious criminal organization around them, and making them feel they have to confess to the crime in order to join.
Cormier’s lawyers argued made the case that there was no conclusive evidence that Fontaine died as a result of an unlawful act. The Crown made the case that Cormier killed Fontaine after he had sex with her and found out that she was only 15.
While there isn’t any DNA evidence linking Cormier to Fontaine’s death and experts have testified that they don’t know how she died, the Crown submitted secretly recorded conversations in which they argued that Cormier made statements that amount to admissions of guilt.
The Crown and the defence presented two interpretations of statements Cormier made in the recordings. While the Crown argued they amounted to confessions, the defence contended that Cormier was talking about what it would be like to be in the killer’s shoes and expressing guilt that he didn’t do more for Fontaine.
Cormier’s lawyers urged the jury to instead pay attention to the parts of the conversation in which he denied murdering anyone.
At one point, in a recording from July, Cormier can be heard saying, "15-year-old girl f--k. I drew the line and that's why she got killed. She got killed, I'll make you a bet. She got killed because we found out, I found out she was 15 years old."
"You ever been haunted by something? What happened there really f--king it's not right. F--k. It's right on the shore. So what do I do? Threw her in," Cormier said to a woman during another conversation in September.
"I did Tina, f--king supposed to be legal and only 15. [Inaudible]. No going back, too,” he said. “The cops said if there would have been DNA and then probably they would've had enough evidence to charge, you know that, for the murder of Tina Fontaine."
Crown prosecutor Jim Ross said in his closing statements that the case was a “true whodunnit.”
“The answer, ladies and gentlemen, was given to you by Mr. Cormier,” said Ross. “His own words identified himself as the killer of Tina Fontaine. For what man admits to murder but that he did murder?"
Ross had also relied on testimony from witnesses who said they saw Cormier and Fontaine together after she disappeared from the hotel where she was staying. They also testified that Cormier owned the same kind of duvet that Fontaine’s body was wrapped in when police found it, that he had made sexual advances towards her, and that he tried to conceal the fact that he had stolen a truck, which would’ve given him a way to dispose of her body. He also pointed to evidence like Cormier running away from police when they were arresting him.
"It's evidence a jury can grapple with. That's not what a trial judge is supposed to do, usurp the the jury's ability to judge," Joyal had said in court, shutting down the defence’s request for the case to be dismissed based on a lack of evidence.
A pathologist testified the cause of Fontaine’s death couldn’t be determined, but that drowning and smothering couldn’t be ruled out. Ross said both were likely. But defence lawyer Tony Kavanagh argued this meant it was impossible to know whether Fontaine died by an unlawful act.
Although a toxicologist said it was unlikely that Fontaine died as a result of the alcohol or marijuana found in her system, Kavanagh argued that self-smothering due to intoxication or an overdose as a result of taking epilepsy medication gabapentin, which Fontaine’s friend Cody Mason testified Cormier gave them, were also likely causes, CBC reported.