On August 7th 2014, when the Red River, Winnipeg, Canada was being searched for a missing man, the police were alerted to the discovery of another body. On investigation it turned out to be 15-year-old Tina Fontaine – her body had been tied in a duvet cover and dumped in the river – a notorious place for the discovery of dumped bodies. The post mortem showed no evidence of how she had died, but it could not have been natural. Experienced police officer Sergeant John O’Donovan was selected to head up the murder team. He is probably noteworthy for the change to a more sympathetic response to victims themselves caught up in crime. After probably the most extensive investigation then held into an individual killing on January 29th 2018 Raymond Cormier – a serial convict – was tried for her second degree murder. He was found not guilty and walked free.

Joanne Jolly was working for the BBC when this case came to her attention and she ultimately ended up investigating, including speaking to Cormier while he was in prison on remand. He would not admit to the murder, but eventually talked a little bit about his links with Tina. She felt compelled to write this book about Tina, her life and death, the investigation and trial. But more importantly behind this serious matter she highlights the importance of this death and case in the wider political context of the extraordinarily rampant numbers of young indigenous women in Canada who were either killed or “disappeared”. The scale of the problem was being protested by an increasing number of women activists in the community but to seemingly little effect.

As this case progressed, the wider rising awareness of the seriousness of the situation would lead to increased media profile on the extent of this disgraceful situation and to pressure for change in police response to vulnerable young women many of them of the indigenous populations. The irony of the facts around Tina is that she had a seriously concerned foster mother, but she came from an otherwise chaotic family deeply embedded in drug culture. When Tina went to be with them in Winnipeg she thus became embedded in this dangerous culture and was increasingly subject to sexual exploitation – often by paedophiles operating with apparent impunity. As a minor and a runaway, Tina was on the radar of the protective services but their procedures were insufficient to keep her safe in spite of numerous alerts. She was able to slip through this “safety net” on a regular basis. Ultimately she would die and be dumped like rubbish.

This is a really important book to read, but not a comfortable one in any way. The violence, the failure of procedures for safety and the sheer extent of the violence against young and not so young women as well as the collateral damage to the wider families are deeply distressing. Jolly’s skill is to show that this is a deeply embedded problem – one that cannot be easily resolved as the underlying linked issues are so broad, serious and deeply embedded. Yes, there is the issue of lack of respect for failing indigenous communities, and there is also urban poverty and blight. There is massive drug and alcohol abuse involving serious organised crime that is often gang-based and behind all this is the sex trade that does not exclude minors – in fact seems to exploit them in a particular abusive manner. But she presents all this detailed information in a way to keep you reading, because she is fully aware behind all the problems there are people – people who are important and deserve considerably more. All intelligent adults should read this book to become aware of the depth of the problem and the need to do more. This might be concentrating on Canada, but similar levels of violence and abuse can develop in communities all over the world if regular and respectful communities are allowed to collapse.

Hilary White 5/5

Red River Girl by Joanna Jolly
Virago 9780349010991 hbk Nov 2019