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I Am A Survivor Of Genocide Against Indigenous Women—Now I Have A Voice

In her debut memoir, journalist Brandi Morin uses her experiences as a survivor of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis to tell the stories of those who did not survive the rampant violence.

I stood in the driveway of my friend’s place and shifted impatiently from foot to foot, blowing on my hands for warmth. Springtime in Winnipeg doesn’t exactly qualify as balmy, and that chilly morning in 2019 was no exception. I checked my phone for the hundredth time. Where were they? I’d barely slept last night, tossing and turning on the mattress on the floor in my friend’s spare room. Morning seemed to take forever to arrive as it always does when you’re anticipating something.

Finally, a white car pulled up and I jumped in the back seat. Two men sat in the front and my heart instantly jumped into my throat, as it did every time I had to ride in a stranger’s car. I swallowed the fear and said a prayer. This is a job, we are a team, and everything will work out, I told myself.

Besides, I wasn’t a helpless child anymore. I was thirty-eight years old and working on a story with the New York Times! Here was arguably the most important media outlet in the world looking to give attention to our people. In all my years as a journalist our stories had barely made the headlines in Canada. This was a huge breakthrough. Finally, our voices will be heard, and maybe the world will start to care about the injustices happening here, I thought to myself. I took a deep breath.

The man in the passenger seat turned around. He was about ten years older than me with short, nicely groomed facial stubble and tousled dark hair. He might have been able to pass for a shorter version of Clark Kent.

“Brandi,” he said, his hand extended. “So nice to finally meet you. I’m Dan and this is Aaron Vincent, our photographer.” He motioned towards the driver with his other hand. Heart racing, I pushed myself forward and shook his hand.

I knew who he was of course. Dan Bilefsky, Oxford University graduate and renowned journalist, who’d spent his early career travelling the world as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times before returning home to Montreal to work as Canadian correspondent exclusively for the NYT.

“This is my first time in Winnipeg, actually.” His voice had an unfamiliar lilt to it.

“Okay, I’m curious. Where is your accent from?” I asked.

He chuckled. “Yeah, I get that a lot. You see, I’ve lived all over the world and speak a few languages, so French is the dominant accent, but there’s a mix of London English, and an influence from my time spent in Brussels.”

“Pretty neat,” I said with a gulp. Like he wasn’t intimidating enough. But, I reminded myself, I am the one who reached out to him and he is the one who said yes.

A few months before, I had emailed him on a whim to ask him whether the NYT was interested in commissioning Indigenous stories. If so, I was the person they were looking for. To my surprise, Dan answered and said they were hungry for Indigenous content. (Yes, he used the word hungry!)

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Dan emailed me. “I finally have an Indigenous story to do ASAP and I would love to work with you on it,” he wrote. My pulse skipped. OMG, Brandi, just keep your cool.

He continued, “The story is this: the government, as you probably know, will soon be coming out with its long overdue report on disappeared and murdered Indigenous women and girls. I would like to write a story ahead of the report that would ideally focus on one very compelling survival narrative and talk to families of people who lost their daughters.”

I was familiar with the issue. It was something I’d been writing about for years as an Indigenous reporter. The vanishing and murder of our women has been ongoing since 1492, but governments and police agencies only began reluctantly documenting this crisis over the last few decades. And their motivation to respond has been practically non-existent. This, despite the fact that all across North America, Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately targeted by violence. A few years ago, the cries for justice from the families and survivors started to be heard in the mainstream. This had compelled the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The report Dan was referring to was the long overdue finding from the commissioners, scheduled for release in June 2019.

I had no idea if the report’s recommendations would make any difference whatsoever, but here was the NYT wanting to cover it! Too often in this business, especially as an Indigenous person, we need to fight for our stories to reach the mainstream. It’s a continual push to convince editors that our stories are worthy of the spotlight. And when the rare story does hit the global circuit, there’s a long history of non-Indigenous reporters getting it wrong — resulting in a legacy of mistrust between the media and Indigenous communities. I was determined to do everything in my power to make sure the media got this story right. I emailed Dan back and asked how I could help.

He asked me to be his “fixer.” To be honest, I didn’t even know what that was. He said he wanted to connect with some of the families and wondered if I knew anyone who would be a good subject to feature. The word subject didn’t sit well with me. We — they — are people and these are incredibly painful stories to recall. But yes, I had several ideas of who to approach so I answered yes and then googled the term fixer.

My heart sank as I read that a fixer is someone who helps journalists in a foreign nation navigate the culture and countryside. I was a reporter. I wanted to help write this story, not just provide an “in” with Indigenous families. So I pushed back, and to my delight, Dan said that it might be possible for me to co-write the piece and get my name in the NYT as a contributor. Well, all I needed was a foot in the door in order to kick it down.

We decided to focus the story on the murder of Tina Fontaine, a fifteen-year-old First Nations girl whose tiny body had been wrapped in a duvet, weighed down with stones, and dumped in the Red River in Winnipeg, in the summer of 2014.

I’d watched the newsreels of a tow truck lifting her body covered by a tarp from the river. Those images had played over and over in my head for weeks. My guts churned for this child who was taken so easily and so callously. Fifty-three-year-old Raymond Cormier was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in her killing but was acquitted in 2018. Her murder is still unsolved.

Something about Tina’s young, beautiful, innocent-looking face splattered across headlines shook the nation. Perhaps it was the fact that she looked like any other girl — other than her brown skin. Perhaps it was the way her body was disposed of like trash. Whatever it was about this child’s murder, people finally saw our women and girls as human beings — not just another dead Indian, a runaway, or a hopeless drunk on a bender.

Tina’s murder woke people up to the crisis. Her short, tragic life helped shift public opinion to support a national inquiry — something that Indigenous communities had been demanding for years. So Tina’s story was the right one to revisit in connection to the report’s final findings all these years later, but I knew there was always a cost to the family when reopening these wounds.

I called Thelma Favel, Tina’s great-auntie and the person who had raised her, to request an in-person interview. She informed me that she was taking a break from the media. She’d given countless interviews over the years and had endured the prodding for the sake of Tina, but each time it was draining and excruciatingly painful for her. And so often, the way Tina’s story was retold broke her heart. But as we spoke, I felt her soften. I knew my voice was comforting to her — the nuances are familiar in Indian Country even if our nations and cultures are deeply varied. I also sensed she understood that I actually cared and I wasn’t just some robotic reporter looking to come in, take a piece of her life, and push an insensitive story out. She decided that she wanted to do it, “to give Tina a voice from the grave.” Her words choked me up and I shuddered at the sudden vision I had of the thousands of women and girls whose souls are roaming the lands of this nation, voiceless, yet calling for justice.

I thought about all of this and more from the back seat of the car as we drove two hours north to Thelma’s house just outside of Sagkeeng First Nation. It was a chilly, windy day. The ground was brown with barren leftovers from a cold northern winter. Thelma’s home looked like a typical small, one-storey rez house with chipped paint on the bottom half of the siding. The yard was tidy and quiet, the winter-brittle grass was long on one side of the house and surrounded a worn trampoline that seemed to release the echoes of children reaching toward the sky.

Tina once played there.

I prayed under my breath as I led the way up the wooden porch steps and knocked on the front door. The sharp wind stirred my hair and the hem of my long black cotton dress that peeked from underneath my coat.

“Hello?” a small voice answered from within. Thelma pulled open the door and my heart sank when I saw her. She was hunched and grey. Not just her hair, but her whole countenance seemed to seep a deep grey sorrow.

Tansi (hello, how are you?). Thelma, it’s good to meet you.” I stepped inside and embraced her. I felt her energy flow into mine and mine back to her. A small flicker of hope sparked in her tired eyes.

Dan and Aaron stepped inside at my prompting. “Hello, Thelma, I’m sorry to meet you under such circumstances, but thank you for having us to your home,” said Dan, greeting her with a two-handed handshake.

She invited us into her small living room and we all fell into the big, comfy, beige couches. As Dan began his interview, I took in my surroundings while keeping one ear on the conversation. Almost every square inch of the room’s walls were filled with framed photos of family members. Many of them were of Tina at various stages of her life — from a little girl of five or six to one of her when she was ten, then one taken not long before she died. I was sitting in the space where she once laughed, played, got into trouble, cried, and hugged her auntie Thelma, whom she called Mom.

I overheard Thelma telling Dan that they used to watch crime documentaries together in this room while Tina sat on the floor painting her toenails.

Something began to shift uncomfortably in my chest and I felt a dull heat in the pit of my stomach.

Thelma was filling Dan in on some of Tina’s troubled past. I knew most of it already — she had been a lost little girl, passed through the rough hands of the provincial foster- and group-home systems for most of her life. But she was strong of spirit and she often defied authority and ran away whenever she could.

My palms were now sweating and I felt as if a bonfire were roaring in my belly. What was wrong with me?

And then I saw something that scared me. It was me on those walls. My small face as a child was staring out from all those photos. The same gaps in years exist in my childhood photo album because I too had been bouncing between foster care and my own home, doing my best to survive through defiance and running.

I closed my eyes. I needed to keep it together. I was a professional reporter. I had no business getting emotional. When I focused again on the photos, Tina was back in the frame. And that was where she would remain. She would never make more memories.

My mind flashed to the image of her body in the Red River. Another memory flared in my mind alongside it — a bloody condom floating in the toilet waiting to be flushed. Drums were banging in my head now: Tina died. I survived. Tina died. I survived. I am her. She is me.

I bit my lip until it almost bled and pinched my wrist to stop myself from breaking down in front of Dan, Aaron, and Thelma. No, no, no.

“I keep the curtains drawn all the time since Tina died,” said Thelma. “I can’t open them because when I look out there and down the road . . . I can see Tina walking home. I see her coming back to me and then I realize . . . she’s not there.”

Tears filled her eyes, and she stopped. Dan handed her some Kleenex from a box on the coffee table and she wiped her tears, blew her nose, and continued gripping the dirty tissue for comfort afterwards. Everyone was silent. I couldn’t hold it back anymore and I allowed my own tears to break free. They flowed down my face like a slow stream, bringing some relief to the internal heat consuming my body.

After about an hour-long interview, Dan handed it over to me and I asked Thelma what she hoped would come from the National Inquiry’s findings.

“Well, it came too late, and honestly, I don’t have faith in it — in them. The government or others didn’t care then, so I don’t trust them.” Thelma’s anger was more than justified. Tina had technically been in the custody of Child and Family Services when she’d been murdered. In the twenty-four hours before her disappearance she was seen by provincial child welfare workers, police officers, and health-care professionals. None of them helped her despite the fact that she was intoxicated and in the company of a strange man — Raymond Cormier. Even when she came to the hospital, a fifteen-year-old who was so under the influence of unknown substances that she was barely conscious, they didn’t keep her. They didn’t help her. They dumped her back on the streets. The next time she was seen, she was wrapped in a duvet in the river. Tina’s nightmare hours before her death were the reason Thelma hoped to start a twenty-four-hour youth outreach centre in Tina’s name in the hopes that no other young person seeking help would be turned away.

After we left Thelma’s house, we drove to Tina’s gravesite, which was less than ten minutes away. It took us a while to find her grave but when I saw it, imagining her little body buried under my feet made my knees shake. There were letters, plastic flowers, and ornaments left there in front of her heart-shaped marble grave marker. She was buried alongside her father, Eugene Fontaine, who was beaten to death in Winnipeg in 2011. I heard that Tina never got over the death of her dad — she was close to her father, as I am to mine. My feet felt like they were sinking into the ground, as if I were being pulled into the earth to join Tina in her grave. Again, I told myself to keep it together. I was on a job. But part of me knew this wasn’t true.

I wasn’t just a reporter. This wasn’t just a job. This was my life too. This was my story.

It was our story.
· · ·
Some two weeks later the feature was published in the NYT and yes, I did get a contributor line. I was invigorated. I still dream of one day having my own byline in the New York Times, not as a contributor, but as a sole author. Because when my name gets there, so do all my relations — the Tina Fontaines, the aunties, mothers, sisters, cousins, daughters, and friends who have never had a voice in the world. And so, I press on.

Brandi Morin is an award-winning French/Cree/Iroquois journalist from Treaty 6, Alberta, Canada. For the last ten years Brandi has specialized in sharing Indigenous stories, which have influenced reconciliation in Canada’s political, cultural, and social environments.

Excerpted from Our Voice of Fire: A Memoir of a Warrior Rising by Brandi Morin. ©2022 Brandi Morin. Published by House of Anansi Press. Out August 2, 2022.

 

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