'With you until I die'

Two First Nations teens, in love and off to college, had a bright future ahead of them.
Now they share a grave, and their small Alberta community is trying its best to heal

Louis Grey has a manila envelope stuffed with love letters his teenage daughter wrote. He can’t make himself read them.

In one letter to her boyfriend, she wrote, "I have faith in us and I have faith in you. You make me want to live a long life, so I could be with you until I die. So we can have our own little forever."

The "little forever" Cory Grey wanted so badly is now a grave, covered by a sheet of plastic, marked by a single white cross.

It is there, in a small cemetery on a remote reserve about 400 kilometres north of Edmonton, that the parents of Cory Grey and Dylan Laboucan go to remember, to share their sense of loss and talk about their hopes for the future, for their families and for their community.

A basketball jersey and a gold medal hang on the cross that marks the grave of Cory Grey and Dylan Laboucan.

A basketball jersey and a gold medal hang on the cross that marks the grave of Cory Grey and Dylan Laboucan.

The killings last summer robbed a small community of two of its best and brightest. In a place where few teens finish high school, Cory, 19, and Dylan, 17, had a world of possibilities stretched out before them — plans for college and careers, plans to return one day to give something back to the friends and neighbours who knew them so well.

All those dreams died in July 2016, on the night the two young lovers were shot to death just a week before they were supposed to move away from Whitefish Lake First Nation to start college in Slave Lake.

A former classmate from the local school has been charged in their deaths.

More than a year later, little is known about what happened that night, or why. Details about the crime are under a publication ban, as lawyers work toward an agreed statement of facts that may answer many questions.
In a place where every face is familiar, where tragedy is certainly no stranger, the people in Whitefish River are trying to come together as they wait for closure and search for ways to honour the legacy of two extraordinary teens.

"These kids were loved," said Dylan’s mother, Becky Thunder. "They’ll always be loved. They’ll never be forgotten, because they were positive role models."

Dylan and Cory fell in love in 2014 and were weeks away from starting college together. (Family photo)

Dylan and Cory fell in love in 2014 and were weeks away from starting college together. (Family photo)

An empty bedroom

Whitefish Lake First Nation stretches for about 20 kilometres along the north shore of Utikuma Lake in north-central Alberta. It is home to about 1,200 people.

About 100 of the residents live in a close-knit hamlet called Whitefish River.

Dylan’s family has a trailer there, a few kilometres down the road from the cemetery. He and Cory lived there with Thunder and her husband, Leo Laboucan, and Dylan’s five younger siblings.

 Leo Laboucan and Becky Thunder with their son's graduation photo

 Leo Laboucan and Becky Thunder with their son's graduation photo

Evidence of the young couple is everywhere. In the small room they shared, their clothes still hang in the closet. On the shelf above is a box of new dishes they bought for the apartment they planned to rent, when they started college in the fall.

Dylan was building Cory a garden box. The frame still sits empty in the yard. A hanging basket of purple pansies, her favourites, dangles on the railing.

However painful her memories, Thunder wants to keep them intact, for now.

Many of Dylan's jerseys still hang in the closet of the bedroom he shared with Cory.

Many of Dylan's jerseys still hang in the closet of the bedroom he shared with Cory.

The tragedy has brought the two families closer. At Thunder’s trailer, they like to gather outside around the firepit, a meeting place of sorts.

Louis Grey takes comfort in appreciating the things that made his daughter happy, including her boyfriend’s relatives.

"She was with the one she loved," he said. "Not many people find that."

Cory's parents, Louis and Nina Grey, left, remain close friends with Dylan's parents, Becky Thunder and Leo Laboucan.

In one letter Louis Grey saved, his daughter wrote to Dylan:

'I was so happy when you asked me to be your girlfriend. I will never forget the day that we went to the arcade. I didn’t know what to say, but I wanted to say so many things.'

'I was the happiest person on the Earth,
and I know I am the luckiest.'

'Deep down, we already knew'

All the happiness the young couple found with each other was cut short on July 23, 2016.

Cory and Dylan, both homebodies, planned to stay in that night.

His parents were headed to Wabasca, a reserve about two hours east of Whitefish Lake, to look at buying the teens a truck as a gift for graduating high school. That way, they could come home from college on weekends.

The couple at Cory's high school graduation in 2015. 

The couple at Cory's high school graduation in 2015. 

Around 9 p.m., a cousin stopped by the trailer and found Dylan unconscious in the yard, his face and lips discoloured. Cory was nowhere to be seen.

The cousin didn’t have a cellphone. Frightened that he may have stumbled across a crime scene, he was nervous about using the landline in the trailer, because his grandmother, wife and young children were with him. So he sped off down the road to use the phone at a neighbour’s home to call police. When he returned 20 minutes later, Dylan was gone.

Cory’s family was staying at a nearby Bible camp that night. Her father remembers getting a call from Dylan’s mother. He and his wife, Nina Grey, left immediately and arrived at the Laboucan trailer within 30 minutes. There was no sign of their daughter or her boyfriend.

Since police told the families they had to wait 24 hours before the teens would be officially considered missing, the parents took matters into their own hands.

Over the next 12 hours, the Greys drove their pickup truck back and forth from one end of the vast reserve to the other, stopping occasionally to get out and call the teenagers’ names. They passed four or five cars and stopped them all, to see if the young couple was inside.

They drove to the convenience store in the closest town, Grouard, and went through the security tape.

"Nothing," her father said. "We went out to the lake shouting her name. Nothing."

The Greys returned home to check voicemail messages on their phone.

"Nothing."

Louis Grey said he clung to the false hope that the young couple had run away, however far-fetched and out of character that seemed.

"We knew something else was wrong,” he said. “Deep down, we already knew."

The families spent a frantic four days searching, along with hundreds of people from the reserve and nearby communities. Finally, the bodies were found, dumped on two separate wellsites.

Both teenagers had been shot to death.

Almost two weeks passed before police made an arrest.

Pallbearers carry a casket into the school gym before a community wake in August 2016.

Pallbearers carry a casket into the school gym before a community wake in August 2016.

On Aug. 11, 2016, Edward Gladue was taken into custody in Peace River and charged with two counts of second-degree murder.

The 19-year-old lived with his grandfather just down the road from the Laboucan trailer. He’d gone to school with Cory and Dylan.

Last month, Gladue’s lawyer told the court his client intends to plead guilty to the charges.

Whitefish River is a tight-knit community of about 100 people.

Whitefish River is a tight-knit community of about 100 people.

Grey’s father has been attending court in High Prairie and Peace River to follow the case. He said it has been difficult to listen to details about his daughter’s death, many of which are still under a publication ban.

"When they had their deliberations, they brought up a lot of stuff we didn’t know about, and that really hit home hard,” he said. “After all, this is your kid. It’s been tough."

Gladue is scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 6. An agreed statement of facts that could shed light on what happened to Cory and Dylan is expected to be entered in court by then.

Though more than a year has passed since the killings, a sense of unease lingers in Whitefish River, especially in the Laboucan and Grey homes.

Thunder said Dylan’s five younger siblings were too traumatized to sleep alone for months. They’ve only recently returned to their own beds.

Louis Grey spent hours driving across the reserve the night his daughter and her boyfriend disappeared.

Louis Grey spent hours driving across the reserve the night his daughter and her boyfriend disappeared.

Louis Grey said his wife wakes up many times each night. He can sometimes hear her crying. She used to drive the school bus, but didn’t return to work after the killings.

"It’s been hard," he said. "Every day we remember."

Beatrice Laboucan, a councillor for the Whitefish Lake First Nation band, also lives in Whitefish River. She described the shock and fear that gripped the community after Cory and Dylan disappeared.

Beatrice Laboucan, a band councillor, says the community was shocked and fearful after the teens disappeared. 

Beatrice Laboucan, a band councillor, says the community was shocked and fearful after the teens disappeared. 

"I was scared even to walk by the window," she said. "We didn’t know who did it or what happened. It’s affected everybody."

Band councillor Darren Auger said the families hope a guilty plea brings some closure. But the situation is complicated.

Darren Auger, a band councillor, says the community is still trying to heal.

Darren Auger, a band councillor, says the community is still trying to heal.

"Everybody basically knows everybody in this community, and they’re still kind of reeling," he said. "It makes it very difficult, because there’s multiple families involved. That’s the hard part of all this."

'I don't hold grudges'

Louis Grey works as a foreman on construction projects on the reserve. He has thrown himself into his job over the past year. He said he occasionally runs into members of Gladue’s family. He wants them to know he doesn’t blame anyone.

"It’s not their fault, what happened," he said.

Cory was not the first of his children to die violently. His son, Lex, was beaten to death on Christmas morning in 2013. The man charged with killing him later apologized to the family.

"I don’t hold grudges for anything,” Grey said. “It destroys a person."

Thunder said rage was first her emotion. But knowing how her son would have wanted her to handle the situation has helped her regain control.

"That’s what stopped me a lot of times — how he would want me to deal with stuff … not out of rage," she said.

Becky Thunder looks at pictures of Dylan and Cory on her son's laptop.

Becky Thunder looks at pictures of Dylan and Cory on her son's laptop.

Thunder said Cory and Dylan would not want to see a division among families, and neither does she.

"I want the community to heal," she said. "Their legacy will live on. Their legacy will keep moving forward in their community."

Leo Laboucan has his son's name tattooed on his arm.

Shooting stars

The fact that Cory and Dylan made an impact beyond their families is perhaps most evident in the halls of Atikameg School. (The word means Whitefish in Cree.)

One of the newer and bigger buildings on the reserve, the school has a memorial plaque hanging in the foyer. Designed by artist Wayne Ashley and engraved with the teens’ pictures, it includes a quotation that refers to them as "shooting stars."

Cory and Dylan were two of only eight students in the school to graduate from Grade 12 over the past three years.

Cory always loved school, her father said. Growing up, after classes ended she would come home and play school, sitting at a little desk in the bedroom, filling out assignments from her older siblings.

She also loved animals, and for a time dreamed of being a veterinarian.

Her father said she had the right temperament for it.

Her family always had to have a cat. When Cory grew older, they got a wild Arabian horse she named Baby.

Cory with her horse, Baby. (Family photo)

Cory with her horse, Baby. (Family photo)

Grey said no one could ride it until Cory took charge.

"She broke a horse herself, made it tame,” he said. “So tame it can be let out in the yard."

When Cory finished high school in 2015, she moved in with Dylan and his family. The young couple got a cat, Dragon, and a dog, Morty.

Cory and Dylan's cat, Dragon, still lives with his family. 

Cory and Dylan's cat, Dragon, still lives with his family. 

Cory would babysit her boyfriend’s youngest brother, still a toddler, while Dylan and his other siblings were at school and their parents worked. That’s when she decided to pursue a career in early childhood education at Northern Lakes College in Slave Lake.

Terilynn Auger and her husband, band councillor Darren Auger, are close friends with Thunder. They started working to grow sports in the community even before Cory and Dylan were killed.

"They’re our top athletes, which these kids would look up to," she said, tears in her eyes. "We notice they’re not there."

Over the past year, she said she has seen a change in the attitudes of young people in the community.

Community members gather for a barbecue at the reserve's health centre.

Community members gather for a barbecue at the reserve's health centre.

"Before, they were scattered and not knowing what to do," she said. "But since the tragedy, the community’s become closer. They’ve been supporting each other more."

The Augers suspect the leadership Cory and Dylan showed on the courts has been a driving force behind that change.

"When you do these sports and you’re good at it, people see it," Terilynn Auger said. "All these younger people want to be like this person. So they try harder."

Cory and Dylan at her graduation in 2015. (Family photo)

Cory and Dylan at her graduation in 2015. (Family photo)

Dylan was supposed to lead the Whitefish Lake First Nation team at the Alberta Indigenous Games this summer. His brother, Hunter, stepped up in his place.

Atikameg School has taken steps over the past year to encourage young people to get involved in sports, hosting open gym nights throughout the week, and sometimes on weekends. The Warriors have joined a formal league under the Kitaskinaw Tribal Council and the Northland School Division.

Dylan graduated in 2016 but died before the ceremony was held. His mother accepted his diploma. With top marks in math and science, he was also enrolled at Northern Lakes College, where he planned to study engineering.

But his true passion was basketball.

Introduced to the game by Grade 7 teachers, he later grew to be six-foot-three.

He began practising at home with his brothers on a hoop bought from Canadian Tire. He got so good, the school gave the family one of its own, much sturdier hoops. So good, Dylan went on to captain the school’s basketball team.

Cory's nephews play basketball on the net the school supplied for Dylan. 

Cory's nephews play basketball on the net the school supplied for Dylan. 

“Basketball was life for my boy,” said Thunder, who often watched from the kitchen window while her son shot baskets. “He loved it so much.”

Once Cory moved in, she would be out there with him sometimes, shooting hoops alongside her boyfriend and his younger brother, who was also on the team.

Thunder, who works at Atikameg School as an educational assistant, has found solace over the past year in the gymnasium, watching the Whitefish Warriors play and helping organize tournaments.

“At first it was real hard to watch the boys play without Dylan,” she said. “It was real hard on us, the family and his brother, Hunter, because he played alongside him. He’d break down in the middle of the game, and the boys would get real emotional.”

With the passage of time, cheering on the team has become therapeutic for Thunder and her husband. He patrols nearby pipelines for a living and gets off early enough to attend evening games.

“When I go and watch the boys play basketball, it’s like my son is still there,” she said. “And that helps me out a lot.”

Dylan's retired number, 7, hangs on the wall of the school gym. 

Dylan's retired number, 7, hangs on the wall of the school gym. 

Dylan’s jersey number, 7, was retired at a memorial tournament in the spring.

Cory preferred volleyball. Her number, 13, will be retired at a memorial tournament this fall.

'Reach for their dreams'

A Whitefish Warriors jersey and a gold medal hang on the cross over the grave Cory and Dylan share . A friend placed the memorials there after winning a three-on-three basketball tournament in Edmonton.

"Every time it’s basketball, they always play for Dylan," Thunder said. "Ever since my son passed, the boys were more motivated. They just threw themselves into sports."

The grieving mother said she hopes other young people keep pushing themselves to follow the example Cory and Dylan set.

More young people in the community have found healing in sports in the year since Cory and Dylan died.

More young people in the community have found healing in sports in the year since Cory and Dylan died.

"That’s the legacy they left," she said. "That there’s hope for kids in this community. That they can finish, reach for their dreams."