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After the Deaths of Two Teenage Girls, This Aboriginal Community Says the System Failed Them

They're taking matters into their own hands, by joining a handful of communities across Canada who have formed volunteer patrols in response to the more than 1,200 Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered since 1980.

by Hilary Beaumont
May 12 2016, 4:35pm

Azraya Kokopenace writhes on the grass, trying to free herself from the grip of a male police officer. The cop struggles to subdue the slight 14-year-old, grabbing her hands and holding them together as she cries out.

The man recording the incident on his phone calls out repeatedly for the cop to get a female officer. According to family members, someone called police because the girl appeared intoxicated.

The video viewed by VICE News shows the officer pin the girl down with his knee, before a female colleague appears to help him. Then another male officer moves between them and the camera. That's when the video ends.

Three weeks after the video was recorded, Azraya's body was found directly across the road from the hospital where police had, according to family members, checked her in two days earlier.

She had hung herself from the branches of a tree. The roof of the hospital is visible from the foot of the tree where she died.

Following the death of the teenager in mid-April, the video is now making the rounds on the Ontario reserve of Grassy Narrows.

Azraya Kokopenace (Photo via Facebook)

Now, Azraya's relatives are accusing local authorities — including police, the hospital and family services — of not doing enough to protect her. Grassy Narrows residents point to the video as evidence the police don't know how to respond to Aboriginal teenagers suffering suicidal thoughts. The girl's family is calling for a coroner's inquest, which is a formal court investigation, into her death.

"After [what happened in] that video, I don't think she would trust the police again," Marlin Kokopenace told VICE News. The grieving father is not yet prepared to make the video public.

Azraya is the second Aboriginal girl found dead in the space of a month in Kenora. While Azraya was found within sight of the hospital, 16-year-old Delaine Copenace was found within sight of the Kenora Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) station. Police reportedly used extensive resources including helicopters and dive teams in their search for the girls. They later ruled out foul play in both girls' deaths. A spokesperson for the OPP told VICE News every one of their investigations is thorough and detailed.

But the deaths of these two girls have prompted a group of Aboriginal women in the small Ontario city to form a new Bear Clan Patrol to complement existing police services.

It's one of a handful of volunteer patrols springing up across the country in response to the more than 1,200 Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered since 1980.

The rate of homicides for Aboriginal women is six times higher than that of non-Aboriginal women, and the suicide rate for Aboriginal people is also far higher, according to Statistics Canada. The number of Indigenous young people who succeed in killing themselves is also on the rise in Ontario.

It's a phenomenon that First Nations leaders link at least partly to the legacy of the Canada's residential school system, which deliberately removed Indigenous youth from their families and stripped them of their culture and language. More than 3,000 Aboriginal children died in residential schools, which were operated by the Canadian government and churches — and many more were abused.

Canada's new Liberal government has promised an inquiry into the deaths of Indigenous women, and has committed $8.4 billion in spending over the next five years to confront rampant issues of boil water advisories, lack of basic infrastructure, poor education and sky-high suicide and murder rates on reserves across the country.

Memorial for Azraya, near the spot where her body was found. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

But for many reserves, that funding can't come soon enough. In Ontario alone, due to suicide, unsafe drinking water and other issues, 23 First Nations are currently experiencing active states of emergency — more than anywhere else in Canada. And instead of waiting for funding to kick in, some of them are taking matters into their own hands.

***

The founding members of the Kenora Bear Clan Patrol walk in a pack along the docks where downtown Kenora meets the quiet waters of Lake of the Woods.

One woman spots a receipt in the shallow water. Another fetches a stick to fish it out.

"I just want to see the date on it," she says.

These are the docks where Delaine's body was found on March 22 after a four-week ground search. It is possible to read the yellow Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) station sign from the spot where her body was found.

Delaine's family near the spot where her body was found, in Kenora, Ont. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

Police told Anita Ross that her daughter likely walked out onto the ice that coats the lake in the winter, and fell through, either accidentally or on purpose.

But Ross says her daughter would never do such a thing.

"I know someone did something to her because that just wasn't my daughter — she wasn't suicidal," she says.

According to her mom and sisters, Delaine was a homebody who loved sitting in a bean bag chair in her room, in front of her TV, playing video games — Black Ops and Super Mario Brothers, mostly. She loved horror movies, the gorier the better, and the series The Walking Dead. She had a talent for drawing and wanted to be a comic book artist, video game designer or architect.

When she wasn't posted in front of the screen, she was kidding around with her three teenage sisters. They teased each other in a loving way, shoving and wrestling each other while laughing.

Photo of Delaine in her mother's car. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

Delaine had no history of depression, Ross says. Her daughter drank from time to time, but no more than a regular teenager. She wasn't in the habit of wandering away from home, and was never gone longer than the length of a movie, she says.

But when officers came to her house, Ross says they told her Deliane was probably just a runaway.

"She was stereotyped as a runaway because she was native," her mother believes.

Skeptical that the Kenora police did a thorough enough job with her daughter's case, Ross decided to start the Kenora Bear Clan Patrol, following in the footsteps of the Winnipeg Bear Clan Patrol.

Winnipeg's patrol was revived about 18 months ago after the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl who was murdered and dumped into Winnipeg's Red River.

Anita Ross, Delaine's mother. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

Members of the Winnipeg Bear Clan travelled to Kenora to search when Azraya was declared missing, and found her two days later.

"Today's resurgence of the Bear Clan Patrol is in response to our community's need to protect its young women and children," the Winnipeg group's Facebook page states.

"The Bear Clan does not arrest people, it does not go into people's homes unless invited, or otherwise take action that is more appropriately the responsibility of the police."

Overseen by a 12-member council, a Bear Clan Patrol is a group of volunteers that provide conflict resolution, search-and-rescue services and a visible presence on the streets. They wear bright safety vests and patches on their jackets that read "Bear Clan Patrol." They also provide rides and escorts for anyone who doesn't have a safe trip.

The Kenora Bear Clan Patrol stands on the dock where Delaine's body was found (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

"The Bear Clan Patrol is about protecting people and keeping everyone safe — that's our main focus," Ross says. "And the Bear Clan is not going to be aimed at just specifically Indigenous people — it's going to be protecting all walks of life and making sure everyone gets home, making sure they're OK, just to mainly keep the community safe."

The patrol would benefit police too, she says, noting that officers have "a lot too on their shoulders."

"I'm not trying to discredit them or anything, you know. We're there to help them too."

***

In Azraya's home of Grassy Narrows First Nation, about a 20-minute drive from Kenora, her friends and relatives sit on lawn chairs, logs and blankets around a fire. A bowl of sage is burning, filling the cool night air with a sweet, calming scent.

A man and woman smoke long wooden pipes packed with tobacco, representing prayers from those gathered round the fire. They believed the smoke will bring their prayers up to the Creator.

Kept burning all day and all night for four days, the fire is meant to bring hope to the community following Azraya's death.

At the fire's edge, Laurenda Kokopenace remembers her niece as a quiet, loving girl who gave lots of hugs. But despite her beautiful smile, the 14-year-old was struggling, and had attempted suicide twice before succeeding the third time.

Azraya was still grieving the loss of her 17-year-old brother, who died from mercury poisoning in November 2014. In the 1960s, a nearby pulp and paper mill dumped mercury into the river that supplies water to Grassy Narrows and residents still experience mercury poisoning today.

"We were all there with him at the hospital and she was right there beside her brother there, sleeping in the room when he left that morning. And she grieved really hard and didn't know how to talk about it. She grieved a lot in silence," her aunt says.

According to her family, she was living in a home in Kenora in the custody of the child welfare system at the time of her death.

On the night of April 15, Azraya was out past her 9 pm curfew, her father said. That's when OPP officers started looking for her. They found her at a Kenora residence with some friends.

The OPP officers took her to the Lake of the Woods District Hospital, Marlin said, but it's unclear why.

At the hospital, she was transferred to another agency worker, her father said, although he didn't know which agency. Around midnight, she left the hospital alone, he said.

Related: More Than 100 Attempts, One Death: The Face of a Tiny Canadian Community's Suicide Crisis

Her father said someone — he didn't know who — saw her cross the street and go into the woods where her body was later found in the tree. "The police were called but they couldn't locate her," he said.

The family says they were not contacted until after she was declared missing from the hospital. They want to know how it's possible that she left the hospital.

"Things just don't add up," said her aunt. "Why didn't they find her, you know? Why did it have to take a Bear Clan Patrol, our own race, to find her, you know?"

Her close friend Darwin Fobister said Azraya felt alone when she was in care in Kenora, and wanted to see her friends and family in Grassy Narrows. "She felt trapped there," he said.

"Even the Abinoojii Family Services, they put her in a group home and she should never have been in a group home," her aunt says. "And if they send her off far away for treatment or something like that, that's hard on a child. They need family around. We need to bring mental services back this way [into Grassy Narrows] and quit sending our youth away. It's kind of like residential school, you know?"

Darwin Fobister (right), Azraya's close friend, at a sacred fire ceremony in her honor. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

VICE News requested interviews with Abinoojii Family Services and the Lake of the Woods District hospital. The hospital declined an interview, and Abinoojii Family Services did not return repeated requests.

VICE News also requested an interview with the Kenora OPP, but they declined. Provincial media spokesperson Peter Leon sent a statement responding to questions about the Kenora Bear Clan Patrol, tension between police and Indigenous people in Kenora, and the deaths of Delaine and Azraya.

"The OPP supports community engagement and values the relationships with all citizens that help to promote our vision of 'Safe Communities, a Secure Ontario. Although we cannot speak to operational matters, each and every investigation that the OPP conducts is thorough and detailed. The OPP utilizes all the resources that are required and deemed necessary with respect to the matter being investigated," the statement said in full.

Years ago, Azraya's aunt Laurenda said she faced conflict of her own with police when she was living in a Kenora group home.

When she was about nine or 10, she says two Kenora police officers, one male and one female, cuffed her and threw her into a cruiser.

"And I didn't want to go back to that group home, I just wanted to come back to my community here and be with my grandmother. But they took me back there and started roughing me up. Started pulling my arms there, and dragged me out of there, and threw me to the ground and they started kicking me and telling me to get up while I was still handcuffed."

Another time, when she was in her early 20s, she says Kenora police stripped her naked and handcuffed her.

"They put my arms up and left me there naked. They were laughing at me while I was there naked."

Delaine's sisters gather at her grave. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

***

As the four-day fire burns in Grassy Narrows, kids aged five to 10 sit in a car nearby with the doors open, blasting a pop song on repeat.

Called "Home To Me," the song was written and recorded in Grassy Narrows. All the kids in the car know the words.

Darwin helped write and record it. He wanted to bring a sense of hope to the reserve.

"I'm doing it for everyone, the community, I'm doing it for my best friend too," he said, referring to Azraya. She came to him when she was having suicidal thoughts.

Darwin has become one of the go-to people in Grassy Narrows for young people struggling with suicidal thoughts. Only 19 years old himself, he says he has saved three other girls from fates similar to Azraya's.

"They think when they're gone, all that drama and everything will be gone, but like a medicine man told me, people who do that to themselves, they get stuck where they kill themselves."

In his culture, it's believed that if a person takes their life before the Creator would have intended them to die, they get stuck between life and the afterlife.

"I always tell them that," Darwin says. "All those girls that try to commit suicide I was always there for them. I was probably the main source to go to everytime they're feeling down."

"I comforted her," he said, remembering one such occasion when Azraya came to him. "I gave her a hug, and I said, 'You're strong and it'll come out. It's OK to cry, I'm here to help.' So she started smiling again. She said, 'Play your music, Darwin, I like your music.' I said, 'OK, I'll play music for you.'"

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont

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