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Tyra Denny, left, and Renee Denny hold a photo of their slain sister Cassidy Bernard at the Nova Scotia legislature in April.Michael MacDonald/The Canadian Press

Cries of joy burst from within the beige bungalow on We’koqma’q First Nation where Cassidy Bernard was slain more than a year ago. Her family had just received news that police had finally made an arrest in the case and would be charging her 20-year-old boyfriend with second-degree murder.

“It’s like a cloud has been lifted in this house altogether,” Cassidy’s mother, Mona Bernard, said Monday after speaking with the Nova Scotia RCMP.

“She’s free now. She’s flying with the angels and singing in the angel’s choir," she added amid a house full of supporters and her daughter’s twins, Paisley and Mya, now 20 months old.

More than 50 people attended a press conference Tuesday at a community hall in Waycobah First Nation, which includes We’koqma’q, to hear the RCMP announce that they had charged Dwight Austin Isadore, who is the twins’ father, with second-degree murder and two counts of child abandonment. Members of Cassidy’s family also assembled at a nearby provincial court to watch Mr. Isadore’s court appearance.

Paisley and Mya were just six months old when Mrs. Bernard found them soiled, dehydrated and cold laying in a crib near their mother’s body on Oct. 24, 2018, in the home overlooking Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton, N.S.

Cassidy, the youngest of six, was a beloved teacher’s aide at the local school in We’koqma’q and a gifted scholar of the Mi’kmaq language. Her death galvanized the tight-knit community to demand justice for her and for all missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as it took police seven months to officially classify her death as suspicious.

Over the past year, Cassidy’s family marched outside Province House, blocked the causeway that connects Cape Breton Island to the mainland, and most recently, stood silent on both sides of the highway for 1 hour and 12 minutes on the one-year anniversary of Cassidy’s death – one second for every day they prayed for an arrest, and one second for every missing and murdered Indigenous woman and girl in Canada.

Band officials took an unprecedented stand after Cassidy’s death to help the community feel safe and supported. They banned Mr. Isadore from the reserve, a move First Nations communities sometimes do if it’s in the best interest of the residents, following complaints that some people felt threatened. The band also offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.

The RCMP said the reward was not a significant factor in the charges. Sergeant Glenn Bonvie, acting officer for the Nova Scotia RCMP major crimes unit, said there was a “huge” amount of resources, including overtime, put into the case. As for why it took 14 months to lay charges, Sgt. Bonvie said the investigation was “extremely complex.”

“We had to make sure we collected as much evidence to support those charges that we laid. That takes time. Lab stuff takes time. We wanted to ensure we were doing it right and present the best product before the court,” he said.

As Mrs. Bernard drove home Tuesday afternoon after Mr. Isadore’s court appearance, she said she felt lighter. Her anxiety about the safety of her family has lifted now that Mr. Isadore was in custody. The women in Cassidy’s family formed a protective ring to care for her babies, with Mrs. Bernard, who now has permanent custody of the twins, at the centre.

“I can breathe again,” Mrs. Bernard said. “All I worry about was my children, my grandchildren, where he might run into them. It’s just awful. I go to bed at night and if nobody calls me or if nobody checks in with me, I have to call them and check in on them. Now, I don’t have to do that.”

Cassidy’s cousin, We’koqma’q band councillor Annie Bernard-Daisley, said the arrest gives her faith that law enforcement is finally starting to look at Indigenous women and girls as people.

“It’s bittersweet. It’s not going to bring Cassidy back, but at least her life didn’t end without any justice given,” Mrs. Bernard-Daisley said. “There’s a good feeling in my soul.”

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