Nearly one year after the attack she so narrowly survived, Rinelle Harper addressed Alberta's first national gathering on missing and murdered indigenous women, telling guests "every day is a gift."
Speaking at the Spirit of Our Sisters gala in Edmonton on Tuesday evening, Rinelle explained that her family moved to Winnipeg from a remote Manitoba reserve in pursuit of better education opportunities.
"It was a big decision and a hard choice to uproot the entire family from the only home we'd ever known," said 16-year-old Rinelle, who initially attended an aboriginal-run boarding school in Winnipeg but is now pursuing her studies elsewhere in the city. "The education system on the reservation is limited and my parents wanted more for my siblings and I."
In the city, though, the Garden Hill First Nation teen found violence – and, almost, death.
Last November, a beaten Rinelle crawled out of the freezing Assiniboine River, only to be attacked again by the same two men. Ever since, she has been giving voice to the missing and murdered indigenous women who are not able to speak for themselves.
"Every day is a gift," said Rinelle, who was thrust into the spotlight because police and her parents made the rare, calculated decision to release her name in the hopes it would spur investigative leads. "I'm lucky to be here. I'm lucky to be alive."
Two men have been charged in connection with the attack on Rinelle, as well as a separate assault on another woman hours later.
The teen, who is still undergoing surgeries related to the attack, has publicly supported calls for a national inquiry into Canada's more than 1,181 missing and murdered indigenous women. The Conservatives have dismissed a federal probe as unnecessary, while the NDP and the Liberals have committed to launching an inquiry if elected on Oct. 19.
The Spirit of Our Sisters gathering, which is sponsored in part by The Globe and Mail, comes just a few months after the RCMP said a serial killer may have been responsible for the deaths of several women in the Edmonton-area, and days after an aboriginal woman's body was found on the shores of an Alberta waterway. The death of 43-year-old Victoria Crow Shoe is being investigated as a homicide.
Edmonton is home to the country's second-largest urban indigenous population, behind Winnipeg. Nearly one-third of the 739 female homicides in Alberta between 1980 and 2012 involved indigenous women, according to an unprecedented 2014 RCMP report.
Gala master-of-ceremonies Wab Kinew challenged indigenous males to "redefine" manhood. "Our communities need us to be providers, to be protectors," said Mr. Kinew, the associate vice-president for Indigenous Affairs at the University of Winnipeg. "We have to support our sisters and work with our young daughters so they know they're valued and should be loved."
Other gala speakers included actress Tantoo Cardinal, who appeared in Dances with Wolves and Legends of the Fall, and pageant winner Lisa Ground, a domestic-violence survivor and the mother of the first First Nations Mrs. Universe, Ashley Callingbull. Ms. Callingbull was also present and is slated to address the conference Wednesday.
Dozens of people from across the country are participating in the conference at the Fantasyland Hotel, attached to the West Edmonton Mall – the very place from which one of the province's high-profile indigenous murder victims was lured. Nina Courtepatte, a 13-year-old aspiring model and dancer, was coaxed from the mall before being raped and killed at a golf course in 2005.
Earlier Tuesday, attendees were confronted with the unsolved case of Amber Tuccaro, an Alberta woman who disappeared in 2010. The disturbing audio recording of her last telephone call, released in 2012 by the RCMP as part of its efforts to solve the case, was played on a loudspeaker in the otherwise quiet ballroom.
The 20-year-old mother was heard anxiously asking an unknown man where he was driving her. Two years later, her remains were discovered in the Edmonton area.