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Rinelle Harper is recovering in a Winnipeg hotel while her parents Caesar and Julie watch over her. (LYLE STAFFORD FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Rinelle Harper is recovering in a Winnipeg hotel while her parents Caesar and Julie watch over her. (LYLE STAFFORD FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Rinelle’s recovery: 'We want our hearts to be peaceful,' family says Add to ...

The Harpers had just finished a family supper when Rinelle, the soft-spoken middle child of three, told her parents she was going out to visit a friend. She swung the door open at their rented Winnipeg home, and in her native Oji-Cree language, she called out, “Mom, I’m leaving now.”

When the 16-year-old did not return that Friday night, her parents, Caesar and Julie Harper, grew increasingly worried. A rap on the door came on Saturday, around 5 p.m., and they hoped it was their girl. Instead, it was the police.

“It’s every parent’s nightmare to have the detectives knock on your door,” Julie says in an interview with the family at the hotel where the teen is recovering. “They asked us if Rinelle was our daughter. [An officer] told us that she had been lying by the river, on the sidewalk, and that now she was on life support. She was an unknown female all day. I forget what they said next. I was in shock.”

After nearly a week in hospital, Rinelle was discharged from the children’s ward last Friday, but she is still in pain and has trouble breathing, due, in part, to the 45 minutes of CPR she endured hours after the vicious attack. It hurts to bend down and tie her shoelaces. Her right eye is bloodshot, likely from whichever blow it was that fractured her cheekbone.

Asked how she is faring, Rinelle says plainly, “Good.”

Is she feeling better and better each day? “Yeah.”

Does she have nightmares? “No.”

As for what happened the night she was attacked – how did she get separated from her friends, how did she end up by the river with two men – she says, “I don’t remember.”

Rinelle might not recall the assault, but the fact that she is alive to say so is astounding. This girl, a child with a family who loves her, very nearly became one of Canada’s more than 1,181 murdered or missing native women. Her case reverberated throughout this city, her Garden Hill First Nation community and far beyond. It led aboriginal leaders to issue a clarion call for Canadians to do more to protect this country’s native children, who are all too often sent away from their reserves and into the nearest city in pursuit of opportunity. Instead, they sometimes find violence.

Rinelle’s parents were originally reluctant to identify their daughter with the push for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women because their girl, fortunately, survived the attack. But they spoke with The Globe and Mail because they know they almost had to bury their daughter – that while she has her own story, her own path to this moment, she is nonetheless the latest native woman to be beaten, sexually assaulted and left for dead. On Thursday, she met one of the two construction workers who found her down by the Assiniboine River, barely breathing. To them, she is the hero.

Before speaking with The Globe, Rinelle had finally made it out for dinner with her parents and her older sister, Rayne, who looks nearly identical and has been her sister’s shadow ever since the Nov. 8 assault. Tired from the outing, and with the TV sitcom Friends playing in the background, Rinelle Harper is now curled up in the hotel bed. Her long black hair is strewn on the crisp white pillowcase, her badly bruised leg swung over the covers.

It is warm in the room, the family’s home these days. There are teddy bears, pink carnations and white roses, muffins and a flat of Cream Soda, cards and drawings of dream catchers, sage sent from their northern community.

The girl is too tired to say much of anything, but about a week before she just plain could not. A tube down her throat was keeping her alive. To communicate, she wrote notes to her parents in black marker on the back of pink patient-report forms. The notes, which her parents kept, say things like, “I want dad here,” and “I can barely breathe.”

And then there is the most haunting one of all: “What happened to me?”

Police say Rinelle was beaten by two men under a bridge near the Assiniboine River and ended up in the frigid waters. Wet, battered and barely clothed, she managed to crawl out of the river only to be attacked again by the same men. Then, in another dark twist, police say the co-accused left the girl for dead before allegedly going on to sexually assault a second woman.

The Harper family wants Canadians to know that Rinelle is not Tina Fontaine, despite comparisons made because of the similarities of their high-profile cases: both involved vicious attacks on native girls found in, or near, one of Winnipeg’s rivers.

Rinelle did not die. She was not in the Child and Family Services system. In fact, she had moved to Winnipeg about a year ago to attend Southeast Collegiate, a native-run boarding school for aboriginal children. She had never run away. Still, her parents understand where their daughter fits into the startling trend of violence against aboriginal women and girls.

“It could happen to anyone,” Julie Harper says, sitting beside her husband on the edge of their daughter’s bed. In fact, just a few weeks ago, it happened to one of Mr. Harper’s children from another relationship. He says his 25-year-old daughter was raped not far from where Rinelle was assaulted.

“It really hurts when I think about it,” says Mr. Harper, a thin and shy construction worker who is maintaining the family home in Garden Hill while his wife, a former physician’s assistant at the reserve’s nursing station, takes business courses in the city. He adds that the latest attack has also been difficult for the couple’s 11-year-old son, Brennon. Mr. Harper and his wife are frustrated. They say they are trying to do everything right. They didn’t worry about sending Rinelle to the city, in part because Julie Harper attended a residential school and, unlike many others, had a decent experience living and getting educated under one roof.

They sent their two girls to the collegiate because they figured they would experience more in life, like field trips – bowling, camping, going to the movies. And since Rinelle wants some day to join the military or the RCMP (or maybe become a teacher, she is still not sure), they wanted her to get a good education.

Julie says the family is still trying to figure out what to do next, but she does not think they will move back to Garden Hill in light of the “incident,” as she calls it. “If we go back up north, it will be like those two won,” she says, referring to the co-accused.

The couple says the decision to allow police to release Rinelle’s name – a rare move for a sexual assault victim, and especially so in the case of a minor – was an easy one. They were told it might help solve the case; police say it did.

The couple says they do not have anything to say to their daughter’s attackers at this point. Actually, they offer their forgiveness.

“We want our hearts to be peaceful,” Mr. Harper says, glancing at his wife of 14 years. She interjects: “I grew up in a Christian home … My dad’s dad taught us a lot from the Bible. It says to forgive others, or the Father up there won’t forgive you.”

The Harpers have not spoken with their daughter about forgiving her attackers, but they know she is not having flashbacks, at least not yet, her mother adds. Nonetheless, they plan on finding her counselling services, and they have assurances from the principal of Southeast Collegiate that their daughter will have support at the dorm when she resumes her studies – which Rinelle intends to do as soon as possible. She has her sights set on trying out for the basketball and volleyball teams. She is looking forward to getting back to her classes, especially biology, her favourite.

Lying here in the hotel bed, Rinelle has come a long way from the suspenseful days not long ago when family, friends and local pastors gathered around her, praying for her to pull through.

She sits up for a bit now, her mother taking the girl’s tangled hair into her hands to brush it, gently. Soon, it will be time for sleep. Each day, her mother says, Rinelle wakes up stronger.

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