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Digital Subscriptions > Quill & Quire > September 2019 > A Canadian horror story

A Canadian horror story

Joanna Jolly’s book about Tina Fontaine hews to the conventions of true crime but seems unaware of its own blind spots

Red River Girl: The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine

Joanna Jolly

Viking Canada

IN RED RIVER GIRL, reporter and former BBC producer Joanna Jolly engages with the truecrime 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.”

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Candace Savage A home renovation leads to a dark discovery and a new book. As Seen on TV: Secrets from the writers' story room.