11/10/2014 04:15 EST | Updated 01/10/2015 05:59 EST

Police identify Rinelle Harper, 16, as victim in Midtown Bridge attack

Winnipeg police have taken the unusual step of releasing the name of the 16-year-old victim in what they're calling a serious sexual attack near a downtown bridge over the weekend.

Rinelle Harper nearly died after she ended up in the frigid waters of the Assiniboine River near the Midtown Bridge. Police say the teen was attacked on Friday evening and was found just east of the bridge at around 7 a.m. CT Saturday.

"As a member of the community myself, I'm appalled by the viciousness of this attack," police Supt. Danny Smyth told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon.

Harper is currently in serious but stable condition in hospital, according to police.

Naming victim an unusual move

Releasing the name of a sexual assault victim is a rare move. Under Canadian law, survivors of sexual assault, as well as minors who commit or are the victims of crimes, are normally not identified. 

Smyth said Harper's parents have given police permission to identify her in this case.

"Rinelle is a person. She's a person that lives in this community. She's a person that has a family," Smyth said.

"We're hopeful that this will resonate with the community and that the community will come forward and help us."

Smyth said Harper had no prior contact with police.

Family members told CBC News that Harper is from Garden Hill, a remote First Nations community in northern Manitoba, but she has been living in Winnipeg with family while she goes to Southeast Collegiate, a high school for aboriginal students that is owned and operated by nine northern Manitoba First Nations.

Harper is a great-niece of the late Manitoba politician Elijiah Harper, according to several relatives, including Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization that represents First Nations in the province's north.

Holly Harper, an aunt, said Rinelle is getting stronger as she recovers in hospital.

"She has a lot of support around her, a lot of love and support and people praying for her," Harper said from Nestor Falls, Ont., on Monday evening.

"We want whoever is responsible to be held accountable for this."

Holly Harper added that the incident shows how much the Canadian government needs to hold an inquest into missing and murdered indigenous women.

"They say it's not a problem, but it is. It's a huge problem and turning a blind eye and not facing it is just gonna keep happening," she said.

"We're lucky Rinelle is still with us. She would've been another statistic. Another reason for the government to say it's not a problem. It can't be ignored any longer."

Was out with friends

On Friday evening, Rinnelle Harper went out with friends in Winnipeg's South Broadway area.

Investigators believe she was attacked on the river walk along the Assiniboine River near the bridge. Police say they believe the attack was sexual in nature.

Harper ended up in the river afterwards. A passerby found her unconscious along the river walk a short time later and she was rushed to hospital in critical condition, according to police.

It's unclear how Harper ended up in the river or how she got out.

Anyone who saw Harper on Friday night or early Saturday morning, or has any information related to the attack, is asked to call the Winnipeg Police Service's homicide unit at (204) 986-6508.

The homicide unit is investigating the case because officers initially did not know if Harper, who was found unconscious near the bridge, was going to survive the ordeal.

Smyth said Harper has recovered enough to talk to officers, and it's believed she will survive.

He would not say much about her injuries, or whether she had any information about her attacker or attackers.