(Reuters) - Canadian police saw an Aboriginal teenager shortly before she was killed, but did not take her into custody last month even though she was on a missing person list.
The news sparked outrage on Friday among Aboriginal groups and critics who said the incident was another systemic failure in a string of murdered and missing Aboriginal Canadian women dating back 30 years.
Police in the central Canadian city of Winnipeg said two police officers stopped Tina Fontaine, 15, about 24 hours before the runaway disappeared in early August. Her body was found wrapped in a bag in the Red River nine days later.
“If police and social services would have done their job, I‘m sure she would have been alive today,” said Michele Audette, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
“We have proven on the back of a young woman that the system is failing in Canada.”
The murder of the girl, who was in foster care when she disappeared, has renewed calls for a national inquiry into the high rate of murdered and missing Aboriginal women in Canada.
Families of Aboriginal victims have long claimed Canadian police and media pay less attention to such cases when the victims are Aboriginal than when they are white.
“She fell right through the cracks,” Fontaine’s uncle, Joseph Favel, told reporters after the police confirmed they had contact with Fontaine during a traffic stop but let her go.
After her contact with police, paramedics found Fontaine unconscious and took her to a hospital on suspicion she was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She was released into the care of social services after a few hours but ran away and disappeared hours later.
No arrests have been made in the case.
“If any other 15-year-old were to go missing, say from some white, middle-class family, the whole country would have been alerted,” one online user commented on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website.
Winnipeg’s police chief said two officers had been reassigned to “non-operational” duties while the force investigates why they did not take her into custody. It was not yet clear whether they knew her identity or that she had been reported missing when they had contact with her, police said.
Canada’s 1.4 million Aboriginals have higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, and are more often victims of violent crime. Less than half live on reserves, and Aboriginal children make up nearly half of all Canadian children aged 14 and under living in foster care, according to Statistics Canada.
Canada’s Conservative federal government has resisted calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, saying it should be viewed as a crime, not a sociological problem.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in May that 1,017 Aboriginal women had been murdered between 1980 and 2012. Another 108 are missing under suspicious circumstances, with some cases dating back to 1952.
Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by James Dalgleish