Rinelle Harper, the shy, soft-spoken survivor who has become the living face of the lost women of her First Nations people, has added her voice to those calling for a national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls.
Ms. Harper, from Garden Hill First Nation in northern Manitoba, addressed hundreds of chiefs at a gathering on Tuesday in Winnipeg, where a new leader of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) will be elected this week.
"I am here to talk about the end of violence against young women," Ms. Harper said, her voice quivering as she took deep gulps of air between each sentence. "As a survivor, I respectfully challenge you all to call for a national inquiry."
The 16-year-old, a boarding student at Winnipeg's native-run Southeast Collegiate, thanked all those who have offered their thoughts and prayers. "I understand that conversations have been occurring all across the country about ending violence against indigenous women and girls," she said.
Ms. Harper was attacked in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, ended up in the frigid waters of Winnipeg's Assiniboine River, then crawled out only to be attacked by the same men again. Her cheekbone was fractured. She was so close to death that the police homicide squad was assigned to her case.
Ms. Harper – who accepted an eagle feather from the AFN executive for the courage she demonstrated during and after the attack – told the gathering she is grateful she survived and will be able to go back to school and be with her friends and family.
"Some people who have visited with me have shared their stories of healing," she said. "I ask that everybody here remembers a few simple words: love, kindness, respect and forgiveness."
It was also in Winnipeg that the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from a river in August.
Ms. Harper's family doesn't want the attack on their daughter to be lumped in with those of other victims. But the cumulative numbers of indigenous women and girls whose lives have been taken, or who have gone missing, are prompting calls for a national inquiry. More than 1,180 were killed or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012, according to a recent RCMP report.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dismissed those pleas, saying the tragedies are not part of a "sociological phenomenon" but are, rather, crimes best handled by police.
Cameron Alexis, the AFN regional chief for Alberta, said attacks like those on Ms. Harper and Ms. Fontaine have drawn the problem into public focus. "They speak to the urgency of action," Mr. Alexis told the gathering. "They put a face on the cold statistics."
An inquiry is necessary, he said, because the losses require more than policing. The root causes need to be known and "it must be about prevention and protection," Mr. Alexis said.
In Ottawa, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt turned and walked away Tuesday, when reporters asked what he would say to Ms. Harper after her call for an inquiry.
Kellie Leitch, the Minister of Status of Women, said she was proud of Ms. Harper and her family for working with the police to apprehend the men who have been charged. But she would not directly address questions about an inquiry.
"We're very focused, making sure that we're moving forward with actions to make sure that these women that are attacked, that these victims of crimes are well supported and that our legislation actually supports that drive," Ms. Leitch said.
Police have arrested Justin James Hudson, a 20-year-old member of Poplar River First Nation who lives in Winnipeg, and a 17-year-old male in connection with the attack on Ms. Harper, as well as a separate assault on a 23-year-old woman a few hours later. They have been charged with attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault with a weapon.
With a report from Kathryn Blaze Carlson