The tragedy of Cooper Nemeth's death brought hundreds together to remember the 17-year-old's short life tonight, restoring his aunt's faith in Winnipeg in the process and moving his parents to tears as they delivered an emotional message of thanks to the sombre crowd.
"All of you shook this earth so hard and screamed from the rooftops so loud to find our boy, and he was found," Brent Nemeth, Cooper's father, said at the ceremony at Gateway Recreation Centre Monday night.
Nemeth's body was found Saturday night behind a house on Bayne Crescent in East Kildonan. Nicholas Bell-Wright was arrested early Sunday morning in The Maples and charged with second-degree murder in the case.
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"We love you Cooper, more than we could ever say or show. You will be by our side every step we take. Rest in peace CIP, we love you."
Laresa Sayles, Cooper's aunt, said seeing such a diverse swath of the population at the ceremony was "absolutely amazing."
"We forget that there are a lot of different communities out there that haven't connected," Sayles said.
"Our First Nations community, our North Kildonan community; I saw almost every community in this city here tonight. That restores my faith in this city."
Drum and smudge
A drum circle and smudging ceremony was held to honour Nemeth and offer support to his grieving family. The event was organized by James Favel and indigenous elder and educator, Larry Morrissette.
"The smudge ... is a way of cleaning yourself and sending your own thoughts and prayers and your belief towards Cooper," said Morrissette.
"We just did a smudge ceremony to help send young Cooper's soul, spirit home," Favel said, adding he wasn't surprised to see so many people attend the ceremony Monday.
Morrissette and Favel are the forces behind the Bear Clan Patrol, a neighbourhood watch group that monitors North End streets.
When Nemeth went missing last week, Bear Clan helped look for the teenager near Higgins Avenue. The group had heard rumours Nemeth was spotted in the area. Bear Clan volunteers searched near train tracks and under bridges, Favel said.
"It just seemed like the right thing to do," he said. "It's incredible the kind of response that we had."
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When police announced Sunday they had discovered the teen's body, a friend of the Nemeth family suggested holding a smudge, Favel said.
"I think they wanted to bring a little attention to our communities coming together," he said. "The feeling of community, it's growing ... with the rest of the city."
Morrissette hopes Monday's ceremony will allow everyone touched by Nemeth's death to come together as one.
"It breaks down all the stereotypes," said Morrissette. "I think that as human beings we all have one thing in common. We want a life and we want to live a life in a good way."
'Put on a strong face'
Sayles said she wants everyone who watched the search unfold to learn from the family's loss and work to be strong for those in need.
"I hope with the tragedy that our family has felt, and is feeling right now, that people will keep this momentum and be strong and support each other, because this cannot happen to anybody anymore," said Sayles.
"No child, no adult, no boy or girl should ever have to be missing, and no family should have to deal with this pain. I put on a strong face now for you, but when I leave and I go with my family, I tell you, it's not a strong face."
Statement from family
The Nemeth family released the following statement after the ceremony Monday night:
"We are not a family that asks for help, we have always strived to be humble and helpful by opening our home to any one at any time. But when we needed it, you all came out in full force.
In Cooper's last days he united a city, a province, and the humanity in all. He became not only our son, brother, nephew, grandson and great grandson, but yours as well. Regardless of status, race or upbringing, all of you came out to find our boy. We cried, hoped and prayed as one, as it should be. Thank you.
Our entire family is in awe of the love you all showed for our boy. He has now become Winnipeg's boy. Thousands of you gave your time, your effort, your resources and all you had to bring Cooper home.
Now you are all supporting us again with your outpouring of condolences, well wishes and offers of help in our time of sorrow. Thank you.
We'd like to thank the all the businesses and individuals that sent in donations during our search to keep the volunteers and our family going strong with supplies, food, time and more. There are too many to list at this time. Thank you.
We'd like to thank The Winnipeg Police [Service] and our family, especially my sister Laresa, her husband Brent and to our very good friends Andrew and Cory for jumping to immediate action and rallying the community and the media to find Cooper. There was so many of you and I cannot list all of you right now, but you know who you are.
You shook this earth so hard and screamed from the rooftops so loud to find our boy and he was found. You made so much noise that it scared all those involved in hurting Cooper, and that is why he was found and justice will prevail.
You kept us strong and our hopes high throughout this ordeal and now you show so much love and support. Cooper's loss will serve to bring his family closer than ever before. We love you all so very much.
All our lives will never [be] the same. We will heal and adapt over time, but we know now there is a community and a family that will be doing the same. As you are all sorry for our loss, we are sorry for yours.
We love you Cooper, more than we can ever say or show. You will be by our side every step we take."