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Rinelle Harper's Family Thankful Girl Found Beaten Along River Is Alive

11/11/2014 02:06 EST | Updated 01/11/2015 05:59 EST
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WINNIPEG - The family of a 16-year-old Manitoba girl who was beaten and left for dead in an icy Winnipeg river is thankful she survived the attack and is now recovering.

Grand Chief David Harper, head of the organization that represents northern Manitoba First Nations, is a distant relative of Rinelle Harper and has visited with her and her family in hospital.

He said the family is grateful the Grade 11 student is alive, especially when they think of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old aboriginal girl who was killed and dumped in a Winnipeg river earlier this year.

"They are very thankful that they are with Rinelle right now. She's recovering and that is something they are very thankful for," Harper said Tuesday.

"We are in a serious dilemma here, not only in Winnipeg but throughout Canada, in how these women are being just trashed ... For them to be treated like that is totally unacceptable."

Police say Rinelle was out with friends Friday night when she was attacked near a downtown bridge and ended up in the Assiniboine River. She managed to pull herself out of the water onto a walkway, where she was discovered by a passerby and rushed to hospital in critical condition.

Officers called the attack "sexual in nature." They took the unusual step of identifying the victim, with her parents' permission, in the hope of cracking the case.

CTV Winnipeg is quoting unnamed police sources as saying they have obtained surveillance footage from a building in the area that is helping them retrace the girl's steps.

The sources say the cameras also captured images of two males that were with her.

Harper said Rinelle is slowly recovering her memory, but she doesn't remember much about what happened the night she was attacked.

"She was beaten up. Her legs were bruised and she had stitches on her head and her eyes are still red," he said. "At one point in time, they thought they were going to lose her. She was in really, really critical condition, but she's slowly starting to regain her mind and everything else so we are hoping for the best."

Harper said Rinelle is originally from the Garden Hill First Nation in northern Manitoba. He said most Harpers from that area are related and Rinelle is the great niece of the late MP Elijah Harper.

She has been in Winnipeg for the last two years studying at Southeast Collegiate, a high school operated by northern First Nations. She was staying at the school's dorm, he said.

Harper remembers Rinelle growing up in Garden Hill with her sister, who was a year older but looked like her twin.

"They came from a good family. They were always dressed nice and well taken care of. They participated in many things ... She was brought up in a healthy home," he said. "They are well known in the community."

Harper said Rinelle's mother wants to take Rinelle back to the reserve to finish her education, but Rinelle wants to stay in Winnipeg.

Police have said Rinelle was not known to them before she was attacked.

There are some startling similarities between her attack and Tina's death.

In August, Tina's body was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River wrapped in plastic.

Originally from the Sagkeeng First Nation, Tina had been in the city less than a month and had run away from foster care a week before her body was found. Her death has been ruled a homicide, but there have been no arrests.

Police have said they are treating the two cases as separate investigations.

Harper said the family hopes the case serves as another wake-up call for society.

"They don't want anyone going through the same thing," he said.

"It's very tragic and they wouldn't want any family — it doesn't matter what race — they wouldn't want any family going through this tragedy and make sure young women, and young girls especially, are looked after properly."

— By Tim Cook in Edmonton.