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Red River Girl: The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine

by Joanna Jolly

In Red River Girl, reporter and former BBC producer Joanna Jolly engages with the true-crime genre to tell the story of one Indigenous girl murdered during an ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Early on, Jolly situates her interest in Tina’s life from the perspective of a journalist eager to make Tina’s story – and therefore the stories of other Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) – known more widely. The origins of Jolly’s book trace back to a 2015 BBC radio broadcast and multimedia article, “Red River Women.” Following the success of that project, Jolly felt compelled to dig deeper into the subject by writing a book that would centre on Winnipeg’s “unforgiving river” and Tina in particular.

The book begins with the unexpected discovery, in August 2014, of the adolescent’s body in Manitoba’s Red River. Having provided a general summary of events, the book then shifts its focus to the investigation into Tina’s last days in Winnipeg, a structure that can occasionally feel redundant, given the saturation coverage the case has already received in the media. What provides readers insight beyond what they would have been able to glean from the news at the time is Jolly’s close access to sources directly involved in the case.

Meticulously researched, including interviews with Tina’s friends and family, and with special access to police figures and files, Jolly’s book is not for Indigenous readers, who may find much of the content triggering. (Especially the last chapter, “Justice for Tina,” which, although delivered in a rote manner, asks readers to relive the unsuccessful prosecution of Tina’s accused killer, Raymond Cormier.) Instead, this book will appeal to those who appreciate true crime or want to better understand how this particular not guilty verdict came about.

Following the conventions of the true-crime genre, Jolly shuttles between the lives of Tina, Sergeant John O’Donovan of the Winnipeg Police homicide unit, and Cormier. To create characters in the dark drama, Jolly delves into their backstories, starting with Tina and followed by O’Donovan. She ends with an in-depth exploration of Project Styx, the sting operation (known as a “Mr. Big” in RCMP parlance) used to try to garner a confession, and not with a deep dive into the life of Cormier himself. In this way, Jolly allows herself to dissect his childhood and traumas via police discovery while also handily avoiding the creation of a cult appreciation for Cormier. O’Donovan is easily the book’s protagonist, though Jolly at times paints other police as this narrative’s heroes, while Tina is relegated to the role of a classic victim.

Jolly writes that O’Donovan knew the odds of getting the expensive and “widely criticized” sting approved were long, notwithstanding the fact that “the Tina Fontaine case was the most high-profile homicide any of them could remember, and there was a force-wide commitment to do whatever it took to deliver justice.” Often, Jolly posits Tina’s death as the moment when Canada awakened to MMIWG; what followed was the creation of a national inquiry, which has recently made public the report on its final findings.

Jolly’s own understanding of the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls in Canada is reflected through her developing realization of “its connection to poverty, historical racism, and marginalization.” This authorial epiphany occurs only after a colleague tells her that “Canadians are so racist.”

Even given her apparent enlightenment, there are moments in Jolly’s narrative that betray an inability to understand Indigenous families’ experience with loss. Jolly details other cases of violence against Indigenous people, including the story of Helen Betty Osborne’s death at the hands of four white men. The author states, “Almost unbelievably, a fourth woman from Helen Betty Osborne’s extended family was also killed.” For Indigenous communities, nothing about this genocide is unbelievable, except perhaps for the fact that Canadians continue to fervently debate whether this violence should be called a genocide at all.

Jolly credits O’Donovan with being compassionate and skilled, yet also quotes him comparing the condition in which Tina’s body was found to drowned baby animals. He says, “I think society would be horrified if we found a litter of kittens and pups in the river in this condition.” Though the comment is undoubtedly well intended, by presenting O’Donovan’s words – his positioning of an Indigenous girl’s death in the context of the deaths of animals – Jolly recapitulates the parallel between Indigenous people and animals, a parallel that is frequently invoked to describe BIPOC and other marginalized peoples. Jolly does not explicitly call out moments like this and therefore at times unconsciously reinforces the very racism she claims drove her to write.

If, and only if, Red River Girl ignites compassion and action – that is, if it convinces non-Indigenous readers to pressure government to act on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action and the National Inquiry into MMIWG’s 231 Calls for Justice – it will represent something more than a dark story about the death of one young Indigenous girl. We do not need chronicles that use Tina’s or any other Indigenous person’s death as material for true-crime narratives meant as entertainment. If journalists are to write these kinds of stories to enact change, they ought to drop the facade of objectivity and work harder to recognize their own blind spots.