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Caesar Harper, father of Rinelle Harper, weeps at a press conference in Winnipeg Nov. 13, 2014.John Woods/The Canadian Press

It was an attack on Rinelle Harper, but to her loved ones, it was an assault on her community – a violation so gruesome her family hopes it will prove a pivotal moment in addressing violence against this country's aboriginal women and girls.

On Thursday, the family's pain and resolve were on display for all to see. But through the tears and the choked words was a clarion call for Canadians to do more to protect native children and youth.

"This is a time the wind has to change," said Grand Chief David Harper, a relative who represents about 30 northern communities. "It's our responsibility to make that change … We have to listen to the cries of the young women."

Speaking out for the first time since the weekend assault, Ms. Harper's mother described the 16-year-old as a "fighter" and a "hero." Her father, so distraught he could barely speak, said he'll never forget the moment he first laid eyes on his battered girl.

The news conference in Winnipeg was held because of what happened to Ms. Harper, but it was about much more than one person. It was about this country's more than 1,180 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls, and how these deaths and disappearances come to be.

"Rinelle's family is asking everyone to come together to make our communities, anywhere in Manitoba and nationwide, a safe place for every individual, especially our girls and women," said Fred Harper, Ms. Harper's grandfather.

Ms. Harper moved from Garden Hill First Nation to the city a couple of years ago to attend Southeast Collegiate, a high school for aboriginals that offers more course selection than the one on her reserve. She had been living in the school dorm but was released Friday for a long weekend with her parents, who had just recently moved to Winnipeg.

The city was supposed to bring opportunity, not violence and heartbreak. But Ms. Harper's fate is precisely what so many parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles fear befalling their children when they leave their remote communities for schooling in the city. "The statistics on violence against women and children is always on their mind," Fred Harper said. "But we have to get our young people educated."

The Winnipeg Police Service has arrested two men in connection with Ms. Harper's attack and a separate assault that occurred shortly afterward. Police say the arrests came thanks, in large part, to the rare decision to identify the victim. The Harper family consented to releasing Ms. Harper's name because they felt it would bring attention to the case and help solve the crime.

"We wanted to get [the attackers] off the streets as soon as possible," Fred Harper explained.

The two accused – Justin James Hudson, a 20-year-old member of Poplar River First Nation who lives in Winnipeg, and a 17-year-old male, who cannot be named because he's a minor – have been charged with attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault with a weapon.

Asked about the revelation that the co-accused is native, Fred Harper said violence among the same race, whether white or aboriginal, isn't surprising. He then added: "But it's among us. It's the way we are these days."

Grand Chief Harper said part of the problem lies in the instability many native children experience growing up, sometimes bouncing from one foster home to the next, or from one jail cell to the next. "I have a responsibility to connect with my son, with my children," he said, imploring parents to take responsibility for their families.

Ms. Harper, for her part, is getting better day by day, already looking forward to getting back to school.

Just past midnight Saturday, Ms. Harper was beaten by two men under a bridge near the Assiniboine River and somehow ended up in the frigid waters, police say. 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.

Grand Chief Harper likened Ms. Harper's defiance – she would not die of her injuries – to that of her great uncle Elijah Harper, the late Manitoba politician who stood up in the legislature and said "no" to the Meech Lake Accord.

"This is the same thing Rinelle did in the frigid waters. She was attacked, beaten, left for dead," he said. "She got back up from the waters and she said, 'No. This is not going to happen any more.'"

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