A shy teenager, Rinelle Harper had moved to Winnipeg in pursuit of a better education, leaving her northern Manitoba reserve behind for the provincial capital. She found a high school that serves aboriginal students, but she also met violence that nearly killed her.
Beaten and bruised, with family at her side, the 16-year-old is now recovering in hospital after a serious assault drawing eerie parallels to the high-profile killing of Tina Fontaine. The cases are so similar – vicious attacks on native girls left for dead in or near the city's rivers – that investigators are probing whether there are links.
With the family's permission, the Winnipeg Police Service took the rare step of identifying Ms. Harper, a move that appeared aimed at humanizing the city's latest victim and compelling witnesses to come forward with information that could help solve the case.
"Rinelle is a person in this community," Superintendent Danny Smyth told reporters. "She's a person that has a family … We're hopeful that this will resonate with the community, and that the community will come forward and help us."
Police believe the teen was sexually assaulted on a path along the Assiniboine River on Friday evening and ended up in the frigid waters. It seems she managed to pull herself out of the river and onto the walkway, where her unconscious body was discovered by a passerby early Saturday morning. Ms. Harper, who had been out with friends but was somehow separated from them, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
The attack was so horrific, Constable Chris Wingfield told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, that Ms. Harper was nearly the subject of a homicide investigation.
The teen, who is described by family as a daddy's girl with a shy smile and a strong work ethic, is a relative of the late Manitoba politician Elijah Harper and of Grand Chief David Harper, who represents 30-some northern communities, including Ms. Harper's own Garden Hill First Nation.
The prairie city was already reeling from the loss of 15-year-old Tina, whose death in August prompted renewed calls for a national inquiry into this country's more than 1,180 murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. On Wednesday afternoon, its streets will host a rally calling for justice for Ms. Harper.
"It's not something that someone gets used to," Holly Harper, Rinelle's cousin, said of the violence. "These are our little girls that are going missing … [Even] if we don't know each other personally, we're all connected."
The Native Women's Association of Canada said in an e-mail that the latest attack shows "the cycle of violence and vulnerabilities" aboriginal women face. Ms. Harper's loved ones want justice for the girl – but they also want more to be done to save other families from the same grief.
"The city, and this community in general, needs to do way more than we've been doing," said Grand Chief Harper, who was at Ms. Harper's hospital bedside Monday evening. "It's only been a few months since Tina's case, and now this is happening again? [Ms. Harper] made it out alive, but that doesn't mean it's time to move on."
Grand Chief Harper said the girl was visibly battered and very tired but was conscious and able to walk around a little bit. "She was really down and out," he said, adding that Ms. Harper said she couldn't remember anything. "She wanted us to pray, so we prayed for her strength, for her to be able to move on and hopefully that nothing would happen to anybody else."
He said Ms. Harper's parents, Ceasar and Julie Harper, are shaken and contemplating a return to Garden Hill. Ms. Harper was attending Grade 11 at Winnipeg's Southeast Collegiate because it offers more course selection than the high school on her reserve, he said, while her mother was taking business administration classes at a local college.
Holly Harper said the family relies on their spirituality to get through hard times and said she believes her cousin was spared by a power on high. "There's a lot of faith involved," she said, adding that Ms. Harper has a brother and a sister. "And I believe that she had somebody watching over her to help her pull through."
Police are asking for information from anyone who saw Ms. Harper in the hours and minutes leading up to her attack. The investigation into Tina's death, meanwhile, is continuing.
With a report from The Canadian Press