The death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine brought the familiar response — reports, regrets, anger.
Fontaine’s body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg in 2014, wrapped in a duvet weighted down with rocks. A 57-year-old man was charged with her murder, tried and found not guilty. The report on her life and death is worth reading, but unsurprising. We’ve read too many similar reports over the last two decades.
Fontaine was from the Sagkeeng First Nation, and her killing highlights the terribly high risk of death for young Indigenous women. Their families are four or five times as likely to get a knock on the door and the news that their teenage daughters or granddaughters are missing, or dead.
To be Indigenous in Canada means knowing that death is always closer than it is for non-Indigenous people. For you, your friends, your children, your parents.
But for people like Tina Fontaine — in her teens, female and living on reserve until shortly before her death — that risk is particularly acute.
For girls 15 to 19 living on reserve, the death rate is almost five times greater than it is for their non-Indigenous counterparts. For Indigenous boys in the same group, the death rate is almost four times greater than the comparable general population. Both are terrible, but young women face the greater relative risk.
Being a girl between 10 and 14 living on reserve means you are much more likely to die than other Canadian kids. More likely to die than your sisters living off reserve. And more likely to die than the men and boys in your own age group on reserve, a huge aberration given the generally higher mortality rates for boys and young men.
This information is all from a major research project by Donna Feir of the University of Victoria and Randall Akee of UCLA that was released last year to virtually no media attention. The study, they note, produced the “most comprehensive set of estimates to date for Status First Nations mortality.”
And it revealed, or confirmed, that something is terribly wrong in the lives of young Indigenous women.
“Status women and girls have mortality rates that are three to four times that of the general female mortality rates between the ages of 10 and 44,” the report found. “These relative mortality rates are statistically higher than the relative mortality rates for Status males, which are themselves two to two-and-a-half times that of the general population.”
Being an Indigenous boy or man means you’re at much greater risk of dying young than non-Indigenous people. Being an Indigenous girl or woman is worse.
The 2018 study is the first to identify “the disproportionately high mortality rates borne by Status women and girls at such young ages at the national level.”
That in itself is discouraging, as the issue of missing and murdered women is hardly new. We simply haven’t paid enough attention to the fact that young Indigenous women have been dying at alarming rates.
The report offered more disturbing findings. The researchers looked at mortality rates for Native Americans and African Americans. Neither group had increased rates of death as disproportionately high as Canada’s Indigenous population, although “Native Americans and African Americans are among the most at-risk and impoverished groups in the U.S.”
And neither had the same “extreme” higher relative mortality rates for women and girls. For all the problems in the U.S. — and Canadian sanctimony — we are the outliers. We live with the reality that Indigenous women and girls in Canada face a far higher risk of death.
Worse, we have lived with it for decades. The study looked at data since 1973 and found that “mortality rates have not improved for women and girls on reservation in the last 30 years, and relative mortality rates have not improved on-reserve for all Status people in the past 40 years.”
There have been improvements in life expectancy for Indigenous people who are living off reserve, but not those living in traditional communities.
“Our findings suggest that the marginalization of Indigenous women and girls is more widespread and systemic than previously documented,” the report concludes, in an understated way.
For decades Indigenous women and girls have been dying too soon, with no effective response from any level or form of government.
It’s hard to imagine such deadly, discriminatory outcomes being ignored in other communities. About 330,000 Indigenous people live on reserve, a population not far off Greater Victoria’s. If young Victoria women were dying at five times the rate of their counterparts in the rest of the country, the response from government and the public would be instant.
The traditional end for these kinds of columns is to write something vaguely hopeful, along the lines of: “If Tina Fontaine’s death is to mean anything, then it must lead to action on the terrible inequity in death rates for young Indigenous women and girls.”
But after so many deaths, that kind of bland expression of hope seems either stupid or cynical.
So far, we’ve shown we just don’t care about these death rates. It will take more than hope, or one teen’s death, to change that.