11/13/2014 12:58 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST

Rinelle Harper's Parents Thank Public, Call Daughter A Fighter

WINNIPEG - When Julie Harper heard a knock at the door Saturday morning, she thought it was her 16-year-old daughter Rinelle who had been out celebrating the completion of her high school midterms.

Instead, it was a Winnipeg police detective, there to tell her Rinelle had been beaten, sexually assaulted and left for dead beside the Assiniboine River. When she rushed to the hospital, Harper didn't recognize her badly beaten daughter.

"I can still see her, lying there," Harper said Thursday. "I didn't think that was Rinelle, but it was her."

Rinelle's father, Ceasar Harper, feared for his girl's life.

"The first time I saw her at the hospital I (didn't) know what was going to happen to her," he said before breaking down in tears at a news conference Thursday.

"She looked so bad, beaten ... It's really hard to forget (how) I saw her at first."

Sexual assault victims aren't usually identified publicly, but Rinelle's parents allowed police to release her name while they searched for her attackers. Tips poured in and two young men, age 20 and 17, were arrested Tuesday. 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.

"When I first heard there were two arrests, the first thing that came to me was to forgive right away," Harper said following the news conference. "If any of those family members are listening, I forgive them, truly. That's what I was taught to do by both of my late grandparents.

"It is hard, but I truly do forgive (them.)"

Police say Rinelle was out with friends Friday night when she got separated from her group. She met two males who struck up a conversation with her and the three of them walked to the Assiniboine River. There, police say, she was attacked and ended up in the frigid water.

Rinelle managed to crawl out of the river upstream but was attacked a second time and left unconscious to die. A second woman was also beaten, sexually assaulted and left unconscious a short time later, police say.

Rinelle was found by a passerby the next morning and was taken to hospital in critical condition. Her father said she doesn't remember anything about the attack.

Julie Harper said her daughter had just moved out of intensive care and into the children's ward Thursday.

"She's a big role model," she said. "She's a fighter. She's a hero to everybody."

Rinelle is already talking about going back to school, she added.

Originally from the Garden Hill First Nation, Rinelle has been living in Winnipeg for two years while attending Southeast Collegiate, a high school for aboriginal young people. The Grade 11 student, who is on the volleyball team, is interested in joining the military or the RCMP, her mother said.

Despite all that has happened to Rinelle in Winnipeg, Julie Harper said she will probably allow her to return to school in the city.

"That's her choice."

The family met with reporters to thank the public for its support, which they say has come from around the world, and for helping police make an arrest.

The brutal attack resonated in Winnipeg, coming so soon after the death of another aboriginal teenager, Tina Fontaine.

Tina's body was pulled from the Red River in August, a week after she was reported missing. The 15-year-old had been in Winnipeg less than a month and had run away from foster care.

Her death sparked an outcry and renewed calls for a national inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women. Police have not said how she died and no arrests have been made.

Grand Chief David Harper, who represents northern First Nations, said he hopes Rinelle's ordeal will be a call to action to fight violence against aboriginal women. He compared Rinelle to her late uncle, politician Elijah Harper, who said "no" to ratifying the Meech Lake constitutional accord because he felt it ignored aboriginal rights.

That's what Rinelle did when she was attacked, he suggested.

"She got back up from the waters and said, 'No, this is not going to happen anymore.' She got beaten again and she got back up. She said, 'No more to violence. No more to these kind of deaths,'" the chief said.

"The wind has to change. It is in each and every one of us, it is our responsibility, to make that change.

"We have to put an end to violence."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Ceasar Harper's first name.