Red River Girl: The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine, by Joanna Jolly

Nine stars

There are times that I like to go outside my comfort zone and read something with a little more grit. True crime tends to do that for me, even more so when the crime was committed in my hometown. I noticed this book at the library a while ago and when it was digitally released to me, I could not give up the opportunity to learn a little more about Tina Fontaine and the story around her murder. Joanna Jolly is a British reporter who took an interest in the case and travelled to Canada to explore the murder of this young teenage girl of Indigenous descent. Offering up some interesting backstory into the life of Tina Fontaine, Jolly tells the reader about her less than stellar upbringing, in which she was surrounded by addiction and abuse before being taken into the care of Child and Family Services. However, even when in foster care, Tina’s life was anything but simple, as she was drawn away from small-town Manitoba and into the lights of Winnipeg, where drugs, sex, and trouble awaited her on the streets. She fell into a crowd that accepted her but, at some point, crossed paths with Raymond ‘Frenchie’ Cormier. Jolly paints a picture of how this much older man served to provide Tina with drugs and a place to party, which might have led to something more. When Tina’s body was discovered submerged in the water and wrapped in a blanket, Winnipeg Homicide Detective Sergeant John O’Donovan traced a convoluted path to Cormier, who denied having anything to do with Tina’s death. Jolly builds the narrative around how Cormier seemed to check some of the necessary boxes, but his guaranteed role in the murder of this teen could not yet be solidified. Using the auspices of Cormier’s incarceration for another crime, O’Donovan and his colleagues wove an undercover web to lure Cormier into admitting things that only the killer might know, while keeping much of their intel from anyone else, including those who loved Tina and await news of her killer. As Jolly builds the story up, she documents how Raymond Cormier made a few significant errors in his admissions to undercover police and eventually stood trial. O’Donovan’s hard work cam out in court, permitting the jurors to sift through it and determine what to make of Raymond Cormier’s pleas of not guilty. Another life snuffed out long before it should have been, Tina Fontaine’s will surely be one remembered, if that is a small piece of vindication. Jolly ensures that this is one case many will remember, while scores of other missing and murdered indigenous women remain but statistics. Recommended to those who enjoy true crime stories, as well as the reader who wants a Canadian feel to the genre.

While I grew up in Winnipeg, the gateway to the Canadian Prairies, I left long before the case of Tina Fontaine found its way into the headlines. Still, it was interesting to take a stroll back as Joanna Jolly depicts the city and its darker parts throughout this piece. The cases of missing and murdered indigenous women is a plight on the Canadian justice system, as many have simply disappeared and nothing is done about it. Jolly not only shines a light on the case, but also shows how proactive Winnipeg Police were in trying to solve the crime, highlighting the work of Detective Sergeant O’Donovan, who is one of the three central characters of the book. Jolly weaves together a wonderful backstory about Tina Fontaine’s life, which might have been short but was full of excitement (albeit not always the positive kind). Her interaction with others varied from peaceful to highly confrontational, fuelled by a childhood where stability was nowhere to be found. Injecting Raymond Cormier into the mix, the narrative takes an interesting turn towards the seedier life of men seeking to use their age and connections to ply things from young women (and girls). While Jolly surely did not intend to make Cormier out to be a shining beacon of light, she painted him effectively as a slimy man whose antics were surely nefarious, even if they were not premeditated. Jolly offers up the story in a strong narrative and tries to keep things chronological as best she can, though some flashback moments are needed to substantiate parts of the story. With highly detailed chapters that explore the backstory, crime, and judicial process, Jolly paces things out so that the reader can enjoy the build-up before things finally come together. Surely not a piece that is uplifting in its truest sense, but one that shed light onto some of the hard work being done to help the ongoing stigma surrounding indigenous women in Canada. If only more could be done to find answers, rather that two sides pointing fingers.

Kudos, Madam Jolly, for telling this story and using all your abilities to make it one the reader can enjoy, not another statistic.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: