Rinelle Harper Calls For National Inquiry At AFN Meeting

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WINNIPEG - A Manitoba teenager who was viciously assaulted and left for dead by the side of a river has added her voice to the call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"I am Rinelle Harper and I am from the Garden Hill First Nation," the 16-year-old said tentatively as she stood in front of the Assembly of First Nations on Tuesday. "I am here to talk about an end to violence against young (aboriginal) women."

The assembly was honouring her with a drumming ceremony at the start of a three-day meeting in Winnipeg.

"I ask that everyone here remembers a few simple words — love, kindness, respect and forgiveness," Rinelle told the crowd as her parents and older sister stood by her. "As a survivor, I respectfully challenge you all to call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women."

The teen thanked everyone for the support she has received since she was attacked. Rinelle was out celebrating the end of her midterm exams in Winnipeg when she became separated from her friends.

She met two young men and the trio walked down to the Assiniboine River. There, police say, she was brutally attacked and ended up in the river. When she crawled out of the frigid water further upstream, police say she was attacked again and left for dead.

Two males, age 20 and 17, were arrested almost immediately after Rinelle's family agreed to release her name. They face charges of attempted murder and sexual assault. They are also accused of aggravated sexual assault on a 23-year-old woman later that same night.

Rinelle somehow survived and has been called a hero by some for escaping the fate of hundreds of other missing and murdered aboriginal women. During the ceremony, she was presented with an eagle feather representing continued strength and courage.

Rinelle, who has only spoken publicly a few times since the attack, was visibly nervous as she addressed the crowd of about 400.

"I understand that conversations have been happening all across the country about ending violence against indigenous women and girls. I wish to continue on with my life," she said, reading carefully from a prepared speech. "I am thankful that I will be able to go back to school, see my friends and be with my family."

The issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women is high on the agenda at the assembly's gathering, along with the election of a new national chief. With a federal roundtable on the issue expected early in the new year, chiefs and delegates are devising a strategy.

A landmark RCMP report earlier this year found 1,181 aboriginal women have disappeared or have been murdered since 1980. Although aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, they account for 16 per cent of female homicides.

Rinelle's ordeal, as well as the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, has prompted renewed calls for action.

"We must learn from her story and say loudly and clearly, 'Not one more'," Cameron Alexis, the AFN's Alberta regional chief, told the assembly.

The Conservative government has repeatedly rejected calls for an inquiry, while the NDP and Liberals have promised to call one if either forms government after the next election.

Ghislain Picard, one of three candidates running to be the AFN's national chief, said the assembly should consider holding its own inquiry if the government won't.

"Every other day, someone goes missing without the attention the situation deserves from this government," Picard told delegates Tuesday. "With every challenge comes opportunity."

Perry Bellegarde, another candidate for national chief, said he would continue to fight for a national inquiry to examine all the factors that contribute to missing and murdered aboriginal women.

"It's homelessness. It's poverty. It's all those things we need to address," he told delegates. "I'm going to push hard for that."

Grand Chief David Harper, who represents Manitoba northern First Nations and is related to Rinelle, said the teen is coming to grips with what she now represents to so many. At first, Harper said, the teen was reluctant to speak, but "now she is starting to understand why she has to speak out."

Elders have told Rinelle that she has been given "a gift," he said.

"A gift for those who cannot speak for themselves, those who have passed on," Harper said. "You're the voice for them.

"This is why she is doing what she has to do now. Even though she didn't want it, it is given to her."

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Public editor: Rinelle's photo published with permission