The dad of slain Winnipeg teen Cooper Nemeth says a heartbreaking and what he calls damaging letter from teen Brianna Jonnie prompted him to write a response — from himself and from Cooper.
"I was saddened when I first read it. It was heartbreaking to read," said Brent Nemeth, Cooper Nemeth's father.
"I was also saddened for the police department. It hurt my feelings. It was very emotional to read that so soon after Cooper's disappearance and then being found that someone would think so unworthy of themselves over race."
Jonnie, a 14-year-old indigenous girl, addressed her letter to police Chief Devon Clunis, a number of government officials and members of local media. In it, she says there is a discrepancy in how cases of missing indigenous girls are treated in comparison to others, such as Cooper or Thelma Krull.
Brent Nemeth said he wrote the response because he's sad for Jonnie but is also concerned "a letter such as this takes us five steps back" in bridging relations with the First Nations community.
He lauded the Bear Clan patrol for its search efforts when Cooper was missing, saying the primarily indigenous group never stopped "for one second to think of race or colour or gender.
"They saw a need and felt the anguish and moved right in to do whatever they could to help as human beings," he said in a part of the letter written in his own voice.
The Nemeth family later held a dinner to honour the Bear Clan and honour the bond with the First Nations community.
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Jonnie's letter, instead, encourages another generation to believe in a racist way of thinking, Nemeth said.
"It breaks my heart to believe that any child believes I see them as anything more or less than a child who deserves love every moment of their entire lives and who needs to be found when they are lost," he wrote.
Jonnie describes herself as an honour roll student, volunteer, coach and dancer who is being raised by a loving mother. Though she is not involved in drugs, alcohol, prostitution or other illegal activity, nor a runaway, she says she is more likely to go missing than her peers simply because she is indigenous.
If that were to ever happen, Jonnie urges Clunis and the media to humanize her, not treat her "like another one of them ran away."
"The colour of one's skin, their socio-economic status, or whom their legal guardian is should not determine the level of assistance they receive in finding them if they are missing, and yet, it does," she wrote, adding examples of indigenous girls who went missing and the gap between when they disappeared and when the police issued a public notice.
In comparison, Cooper had his image in the paper the next day and Krull was in online reports less than 24 hours after her disappearance, Jonnie said.
James Favel, an organizer with the Bear Clan Patrol, said he is driven to work toward "a new normal" in terms of community responses to missing persons.
"We have made some real gains and I don't want to see it be lost," Favel said, adding "you can't take away from [Jonnie's] reality.
"I wouldn't malign her for how she feels. I know that there's many women in my community that have the same feeling."
Still, while Favel acknowledges Jonnie's concerns are valid, he added that negativity surrounding the issue isn't productive either.
"Delaine Copenace went missing last Friday. We've been searching; the media has been all over it. I think coverage has been equal in that respect."
Brent Nemeth said the family was actively doing everything they could to help find Cooper.
"We used the media to our advantage, we used social media to our advantage," he said.
"We didn't sit at home and just file a missing police report. I was constantly on the police, updating every 15 minutes as soon as I made the report. Cooper's friends texting, tweeting; my sister coming in and putting her keys down on the table and four coffees and saying, 'We're going to find him.'"
He said he is saddened that Jonnie believes her worth is based on gender and race, but felt she was off the mark when it comes to who spearheads the searching.
They are "fuelled by families and communities and police can only do the job they are enlisted to do. And it is the same for everyone," he said, noting Cooper's family, friends and the community overall "found the leads … the tips … and the feet on the street to rattle the earth.
"It wasn't 1,500 police officers out there."
Instead of writing to the police, government and media, Jonnie should have addressed her letter to her parents, Nemeth said.
The following is from Nemeth's letter, written in the voice of Cooper:
"If I go missing … please please please recognize quickly that this is something completely out of the norm for me and don't ever let me become another statistic. Handle me missing with the same care and love that you handle me with every single day of my life. Know that the times that I am acting out as a 17-year-old boy and we are struggling through some moments in our house have nothing to do with where I am now.
"Don't wait for the police to look for me. They will do what they can and what they are allotted to do for every single missing person case there is. They will issue a statement and follow leads but it is up to you Mom and Dad to help find those leads for them and rally every single person you can to help find me. The police can't do that for us … or anyone else.
"Shout from the rooftops and ends of the earth and call out to everyone you know to join you. Please Mom and Dad … even when you hear things that will make you think I have gone farther off the path you have laid out for me … don't give up.
"I am just being a 17-year-old kid … trying things that most of us try … but in the big scheme of things, this moment doesn't define who I am and who you have taught me to be. I may have hid a few things from you because that's what we do as teenagers.… We are chameleons to our parents.
"Don't let anything stop you Mom and Dad. When it comes down to it … only you and your strength and your love and your belief in me can bring me home."
Brent Nemeth’s letter, in the voice of his late 17-year-old son Cooper Nemeth
Brent Nemeth’s letter, in the voice of his late 17-year-old son Cooper Nemeth (PDF KB)
Brent Nemeth’s letter, in the voice of his late 17-year-old son Cooper Nemeth (Text KB)