John George Robinson spent his birthday tramping through the woods and climbing over boulders looking for whatever is left of his daughter, an 11-year-old girl with a contagious smile who was killed before she got the chance to dream, her mother said.
The search for the rest of Teresa Cassandra Robinson's remains continued on the weekend in Garden Hill First Nation, 12 days after part of her body was found in a wooded area in this fly-in community in northern Manitoba, where patchwork prairies give way to islands and lakes. The girl, who was last seen the evening of May 5 leaving a birthday party near her home, was initially thought to have been mauled by an animal, but the RCMP are now investigating the death as a homicide. No arrests have been made.
"I just don't know what to say," her mother, Sandra Robinson, told The Globe at Mr. Robinson's 41st birthday gathering Saturday on the family's lawn, where relatives and friends sang Christian music over a feast of freshly killed moose, bannock and pizza. "She was a happy girl." Asked what Teresa wanted for her future, Ms. Robinson said her shy child was too young to know.
Grand Chief David Harper, who is from Garden Hill and represents more than 30 communities in the province, said a service will be held at a Winnipeg church Monday evening. Teresa will be buried amid the rows of white crosses in the reserve cemetery this week.
The young girl's death came almost exactly one year after the RCMP released an unprecedented report that found 1,181 native girls and women were killed or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012. The report, as well as recent high-profile attacks on indigenous women – including one that nearly killed Garden Hill-born Rinelle Harper in November – have reignited calls for a national inquiry into the violence.
Native leaders say the tragedies are born from inadequate on-reserve social services, poor education opportunities, unemployment, broken child-welfare systems, abysmal housing, under-resourced policing and historic causes such as colonization and the Indian Residential School system.
"[The victims] had aspirations," Garden Hill Chief Arnold Flett said of Canada's so-called stolen sisters. "They had plans. To be taken away from all that is devastating for them and for the community."
Teresa, who would have celebrated her 12th birthday on May 14, was the youngest of six children – four boys and two girls. She liked to play outside and draw with crayons given to her by her grandmother, Elilah Robinson, a former band councillor. A few months ago, Teresa visited her in Winnipeg and spent time with cousins.
Community members said the children were being raised by their father after Ms. Robinson moved to nearby Red Sucker Lake. Some of Teresa's siblings, wearing torn pieces of their sister's clothing around their wrists in remembrance, joined in the search on the weekend. One of her brothers, who is in jail, found out about Teresa's death on the news, the grandmother said.
"It was really hard on him," she said at the Island Lake airport as the family prepared to board a Winnipeg-bound flight.
Garden Hill has seen gang violence and murders before, but the brazen killing of a child on a reserve where everyone knows everyone has shocked the community. "My question is, why?" said Margaret Little, who taught Teresa in Grade 2 and said she will never forget seeing the girl smile at her in the school hallway the week before her death. "Why Teresa?"
There are rumours about who might have committed the crime, with at least two names circling the community of a few thousand. Children are afraid to be away from their parents, including one eight-year-old girl who said matter-of-factly that there is a knife-wielding, black-clothed "monster" on the loose. A curfew of 10:30 p.m. is in place.
The elementary school, where the flag flies at half-mast, has not held classes for nearly two weeks. The lunch room is instead being used to feed the hundreds of searchers who are pouring in from neighbouring communities by boat. The bus shelter is now the command centre for the volunteer search effort, its walls plastered with photos of Teresa and maps of the area. The Child and Family Services building, which sometimes doubles as a courthouse, is being temporarily used by the RCMP, whose office is across the water on Stevenson Island and serves the four Island Lake communities.
The RCMP were first notified that Teresa was missing on May 11, six days after the birthday party. Chief Flett said Mr. Robinson thought his daughter had gone to stay at a friend's or a relative's, as children often do in this community – a place where vehicles with no licence plates drive on gravel roads with no names.
After Mr. Robinson called Teresa's school May 8 and learned she had not attended for a few days, a volunteer search was launched and announcements were made on the Garden Hill radio station.
Susan and Van Del Harper were among those who went door-to-door asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of Teresa, who was last seen wearing a grey sweater, faded jeans and striped socks. One of the girl's best friends told Ms. Harper she had found a bracelet belonging to Teresa on the road; she recognized it because Teresa had painted it yellow with nail-polish. The girl led Ms. Harper down the potholed road toward the bus shelter.
"I suddenly saw what was missing … what I thought was her," Ms. Harper said. "I screamed for [my husband], who was in the woods." That spot, not far from the birthday party, in the opposite direction of the Robinson home, is now staked with a white cross adorned with rosaries. A sacred fire burns nearby.
The Harpers declined to describe what they saw out of respect for the family, but several community members say the remains were Teresa's bottom half. Grand Chief Harper said the RCMP have told local leaders other parts of Teresa's skeleton have been found, but not all of it. An RCMP spokesman would not confirm the status of the corpse, but the force had earlier said the remains had been disturbed by animals.
Although residents long to know who killed Teresa, the emphasis now is on finding whatever might be left of her body. "As First Nations people, we highly regard the remains intact," Chief Flett said. "[Residents] just can't take the fact that this part is over here and that part is over there."
He said his message to whoever took Teresa's life is this: "Come forward and hand themselves over. For the community – and for themselves."