Red River Girl by Joanna Jolly reviewed

Red River Girl Book Cover Red River Girl
Joanna Jolly
Little Brown Books
November 07, 2019

A gripping account of the unsolved death of an Indigenous teenager, and the detective determined to find her killer, set against the backdrop of a troubled city.

On August 17, 2014, the body of fifteen-year old runaway Tina Fontaine was found in Winnipeg's Red River. It was wrapped in material and weighted down with rocks. Red River Girl is a gripping account of that murder investigation and the unusual police detective who pursued the killer with every legal means at his disposal. The book, like the movie Spotlight, will chronicle the behind-the-scenes stages of a lengthy and meticulously planned investigation. It reveals characters and social tensions that bring vivid life to a story that made national headlines.
Award-winning BBC reporter and documentary maker Joanna Jolly delves into the troubled life of Tina Fontaine, the half-Ojibway, half-Cree murder victim, starting with her childhood on the Sagkeeng First Nation Reserve. Tina's journey to the capital city is a harrowing one, culminating in drug abuse, sexual exploitation, and death.
Aware of the reality of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Jolly has chronicled Tina Fontaine's life as a reminder that she was more than a statistic. Raised by her father, and then by her great-aunt, Tina was a good student. But the violent death of her father hit Tina hard. She ran away, was found and put into the care of Child and Family Services, which she also sought to escape from. That choice left her in danger.
Red River Girl focuses not on the grisly event itself, but on the efforts to seek justice. In December 2015, the police charged Raymond Cormier, a drifter, with second-degree murder. Jolly's book will cover the trial, which resulted in an acquittal. The verdict caused dismay across the country.
The book is not only a true crime story, but a portrait of a community where Indigenous women are disproportionately more likely to be hurt or killed. Jolly asks questions about how Indigenous women, sex workers, community leaders and activists are fighting back to protect themselves and change perceptions. Most importantly, the book will chronicle whether Tina's family will find justice.

The basic idea of Red River Girl by Joanna Jolly appealed to me a lot. Essentially it looks at the way native indigenous people and particularly women, have been treated in Canada. The other thread in this is the case of Tina Fontaine, an indigenous teenage girl, who went missing in 2014. The author had access to both the police and their case regarding Tina’s disappearance. It was the case that finally brought a far deeper consciousness of the problem not only in the native community but also in the wider (and white) public. For me there was a feel of the Lawrence case in the UK in this.

Tina’s case was handled mainly by Sergeant John O’Donovan. O’Donovan emigrated to Canada from Ireland at 28 and never intended to become a policeman. It felt to me that he was not part of the core establishment in some ways. Certainly there had been plenty of deaths of native people, particularly female and young, which the police had taken little interest in. This case bothered O’Donovan and it also raised awareness of the topic generally in the eyes of the public at large.

Red River Girl looks at the general treatment of indigenous females in some detail. It quickly becomes apparent that there is a long history of ignoring crimes against native women generally. Frequently the blame is simply placed on their “lifestyles” and not investigated. Given that these crimes include murder and rape it amazed me that there had not been far more outcry earlier.

Tina’s murder was a sad story. Family issues coupled with teenage life and angst seem to have left her angry and vulnerable. The police find a credible suspect quite early on. However there is a lack of real evidence against him. Those who expect a satisfactory crime thriller will not find it in this. The whole police case is fraught with difficulties. Given that this is a real and powerful story at times it’s sad that the police case is not the strongest.

On balance I’m very pleased I read Red River Girl. The story needed telling. In my simple opinion Canadian society seems to have been disinterested in crimes against native women. This case appears to have changed that at least. I’d prefer not to give anything else away as others will find this a worthwhile read. Frankly I’m not quite sure how to rate this. Indeed I’m not sure who the target audience is. My feeling is that if the topic interests you then it should be a good read. It is a little detailed in places however I kept reading happily. A sad story but one that needed telling.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review