Skip to main content

Having survived a horrific assault and being left for dead in Winnipeg in November, 16-year-old Rinelle Harper says a national inquiry on murdered and missing native women ‘would be a chance for women and their families to heal from the past.’Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Ever since her heart stopped, Rinelle Harper has been striving for normalcy. She fought for her life and now she wants to live like the 16-year-old she is – spending too much time on Facebook, listening to Eminem, playing volleyball, resisting her mother's suggestions on how to wear her long black hair.

It has been nearly five months since a beaten Rinelle crawled out of Winnipeg's freezing Assiniboine River, only to be attacked again on a footpath by two men who left her there to die. Now she is giving a voice to the murdered and missing native women who are not able to speak for themselves. She wants a national inquiry into their deaths and disappearances, and she wants native women to take care of one another – to walk in pairs, especially at night.

Hers is the quiet voice of a shy teen cast reluctantly into a public role by the ineffable luck of the survivor, but hoping to be heard all the same.

During an interview at the Harper home in Winnipeg this week, Rinelle and her parents, Julie and Caesar Harper, reflected on life since the Nov. 8 attack and spoke of plans for the future. The rented home is in a residential neighbourhood near the Red River, the murky waterway where the body of Tina Fontaine, a Sagkeeng First Nation teen, was found in August of last year.

It is a small house, never meant for so many. Rinelle and her older sister are home from boarding school more often now, and Mr. Harper, who had been working in their northern community of Garden Hill, Man., has moved to the city to be with his family.

On the kitchen table there was a Bible and a Canadian Armed Forces application for the Bold Eagle summer military program in Alberta. Rinelle, who is contemplating a future in the Forces, hopes to be accepted to the summer program. Atop the TV in the living room stood a matted letter of support from Senator Lillian Dyck addressed to Rinelle. Framed family portraits, taken about a month after the attack, were also on display.

Asked how life has changed since the assault, Rinelle, sporting smoky eyeshadow and a black Adidas T-shirt, shrugged and looked at her mother, who said, "Normal."

The teen's reticence is nothing new. "She's the same girl," her father said. In the interview, Rinelle communicated mostly through body language – nodding, shaking her head, smiling. She said little more than "yes" or "no," though she sometimes turned to her mother and answered briefly in their native Oji-Cree.

Rinelle 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. It did, and now two men have been charged in connection with the attack on her, as well as a separate assault on a 23-year-old woman hours later.

The teen, who said she does not remember the attack and does not suffer from flashbacks, is relieved arrests were made in the case. She feels safer now. But at the same time, she wishes her identity had never been released. She finds it difficult to be the public face of a movement. And yet she understands this is her life now and she wants Canadians to hear her message. The day after The Globe and Mail visited her home, Rinelle – unsolicited – sent thoughts over Facebook.

"One thing that has been happening is that other women and girls have been approaching us to talk about how they were attacked," she wrote. "Many women told us that they never came forward, and that they carried that with them, some for many years. I believe more women and men who have been assaulted should come forward."

She said her family has been fortunate enough to be supported through their "healing journey." They pray, go to church and are starting to talk about what happened to her. The attack was so horrific that Ms. Harper, who endured 45 minutes of CPR at the scene and had no pulse in the intensive care unit, was nearly the subject of a homicide investigation.

In some ways, the months since have been surprisingly unremarkable. Rinelle sleeps well and no longer needs the sleeping pills she relied on in the hospital. The teen still boards during the week at Winnipeg's Southeast Collegiate and is on track to finish Grade 11 with her friends, as long as she catches up in English class. She briefly returned to tae kwon do just two weeks after being released from the hospital. She missed basketball tryouts but made the volleyball team. The family sometimes orders KFC for dinner. They watch Castle and listen to rock on the radio.

But life after the attack has also been surreal, emotional and frightening. In December, the recovering teen addressed the Assembly of First Nations clutching an eagle feather, just as her great-uncle, Elijah Harper, famously did in the Manitoba legislature when he stood up against the Meech Lake accord. She took her first trip outside the Prairie province in February to attend the national roundtable in Ottawa on violence against native women. Maybe, she said, she would like to live there some day.

Rinelle, who two weeks ago started seeing a counsellor, makes sure she is never alone in Winnipeg at night. Still, her mother is anxious. Ms. Harper, who moved to the Manitoba capital last year to take college business courses, worries when her daughter is out. She also worries when the words "Private Caller" appear on her cellphone. She fears it is a relative of one of the co-accused.

Justin Hudson, a 20-year-old Poplar River band member, and a 17-year-old male, who cannot be named because he is a minor, have been charged with attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault and, in relation to the attack on the 23-year-old, sexual assault with a weapon.

Ms. Harper said police have told her there is "really strong evidence in the case," including Facebook photographs of the 17-year-old allegedly wearing Rinelle's jacket and sneakers. She also said she is curious about the other victim. "I wonder who she is, if she's aboriginal, if she's okay," Ms. Harper said. "I wonder if she has any kids. And was she alone at the time, too?"

She said the assault on her daughter and their time in Ottawa for the roundtable have opened her eyes to the wider issue of murdered and missing native women.

"That was our first time hearing stories from others," she said. "There was one lady who talked about her 16-year-old who is still missing. … Because she was 16, I could just feel it."

The Harper family is now throwing its support behind a call for a national inquiry. In her written comments to The Globe, Rinelle said the inquiry "would be a chance for women and their families to heal from the past."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dismissed calls for a national probe, saying the tragedies are not part of a "sociological phenomenon" and need not be further studied. Ms. Harper said she will be voting for the Liberals in the fall election because she thinks Justin Trudeau is a good leader and his party supports an inquiry.

She said she and her husband are grateful to Canadians, near and far, who have sent messages of encouragement to her family. "We want to say thank you to all the Canadians who supported her," she said. "The letters, the donations, the teddy bears."

Her daughter, she said, is scarred from the attack, her legs especially. But other than having to change the dressing on a particular wound every couple of days, Rinelle has recovered. Gone is the bloodshot eye and the chest pain from the prolonged CPR. Gone, too, is the residual ache that coursed through her body.

"I am thankful for my life – for the time I can spend with my family," Rinelle wrote. "I thank God for giving me this chance to say a few words to everyone who will listen to my message."

Starting a conversation for a healing journey

After an interview with The Globe and Mail this week, a reticent Rinelle Harper sent across some written thoughts. This is her message:

My mom and I have been getting a lot of support from people we meet.

One thing that has been happening is that other women and girls have been approaching us to talk about how they were attacked.

Many women told us that they never came forward and that they carried that with them, some for many years. I believe more women and men who have been assaulted should come forward.

My family and I have been fortunate; we found support for our healing journey. We pray, go to church and we are beginning to talk about what happened to me.

But there are so many people out there who need someone to talk to. Victim Services are hard to come by, especially if you don't live in Winnipeg.

I understand that conversations have been occurring all across the country about ending violence against indigenous women and girls. When I was at the AFN Assembly, I asked everyone to keep a few simple words in mind that have been my inspiration: love, kindness, respect and forgiveness.

I also shared my support for a call for a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. I am able to call out for an inquiry, but there are far too many young women who lost their lives who cannot do the same.

For me, the inquiry would help women come forward and report the assaults that happened to them. The inquiry would be a chance for women and their families to heal from the past.

I am thankful for my life – for the time I can spend with my family. I thank God for giving me this chance to say a few words to everyone who will listen to my message.

Edited for length and clarity

Interact with The Globe