In early November, 16-year-old Winnipeg student Rinelle Harper—described by her Garden Hill First Nation family as a "soft-hearted teen"—was viciously attacked and dumped into the frigid Assiniboine River by two male assailants. Harper survived that attack and managed to crawl out of the river upstream from where she was assaulted. Then she was attacked a second time by the same men, beaten with a weapon and, according to police, "left for dead." She was eventually found alive by a passerby the next morning and was rushed to hospital, where she recovered from her injuries.
A 20-year-old and 17-year-old have since been charged with attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault, and sexual assault with a weapon.
When the details of the brutal attack came to light, they bore an eerie resemblance to the tragic story of Tina Fontaine, the 15-year-old aboriginal girl whose slain body was found in the Red River wrapped in a bag. Fontaine's body was found days after she was reported missing from her foster home. Police had seen and released her less than 24 hours earlier, in spite of the filed missing persons report: a brutal reminder of the violence indigenous women face in our country today. Fontaine's killers have not yet been found.
Across the country there have been calls for the federal government to hold a proper inquiry into the more than 1,800 missing and murdered indigenous women who have been reported by the RCMP (it's important to note that some feel that the RCMP's report doesn't go far enough in tackling the issue). But even with the UN urging Canada to solve the disproportionate number of cases involving aboriginal women, and growing pressure from the Liberals to use the courts to shame the Conservatives into action, the public outcry has largely fallen on deaf ears. The current federal government has made no indication that it is budging on its no-inquiry policy, with Stephen Harper going so far as to say the issue isn't a systemic, sociological problem, but simply one of crime.
Today at the at the gathering of the chiefs of Canada's Assembly of First Nations in Winnipeg—where the Assiniboine and Red rivers meet—Rinelle Harper added her voice to those growing number of people calling for an official inquiry.
"I am here to talk about an end to violence against young women. I am happy to be here today to provide you a few words on behalf of my family," Harper said, visibly shaken. She went on to thank her supporters and added, "I understand that conversations have been happening all across the country about ending violence against indigenous women and girls... I ask that everyone here remember a few simple words: love, kindness, respect, and forgiveness." She ended her speech with a powerful request: "As a survivor, I respectfully challenge you all to call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women."
The conference Harper spoke at began Tuesday, and at it, First Nations chiefs from across Canada will elect a new national leader to the Assembly of First Nations. The discussion will include tackling education and missing and murdered indigenous women in Winnipeg, a city in the province where half of female murder victims between 1980 and 2012 were First Nations. While it's still unclear whether Rinelle Harper's request will push the federal government into action, there's hope to be found in the recent news that Winnipeg police are making the investigation of missing and murdered indigenous women a priority.
But without a proper inquiry to identify and understand the roots of the problem, and an informed plan on how to adequately deal with the issue, the bleak statistics—that aboriginal women make up only 2.1 percent of Canada's population, but account for 16 percent of female homicides and 11.3 per cent of missing women in Canada —will not likely get any better.