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Melina Laboucan-Massimo has been an advocate for Indigenous rights for more than a decade.
Two years ago, her heart set fire for a personal fight for justice.
Her little sister, Bella Laboucan-McLean, was found dead at the base of a downtown condo building in Toronto, Ont., in the early morning of July 20, 2013.
Toronto police said Bella had arrived at the condo earlier that night with five other people after a night out at a club.
Just before 5 a.m., the young woman went over the balcony, 31 floors up from the concrete below her.
When officers arrived on the scene, they knocked on every door in the apartment building, but there was no answer at the unit Bella had been in.
Around 5 p.m. — 12 hours after Bella died — a man called police from the unit to report her missing.
Detectives said they interviewed every person who was in the condo that night; all said they were not aware Bella had fallen.
It’s a piece of the puzzle the Laboucan and McLean family cannot put together.
“They have tried to maintain their innocence by saying that they didn’t know what happened, which is really hard for us to believe because it was such a small condo,” said Melina. “Basically, from what I’ve heard, is that it’s very hard to not see anything unless they’re all in… the one bathroom or the bedroom.”
Detective Darren Worth with the Toronto police said his team has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and they still consider Bella’s death suspicious.
They’ve examined cell phone records, watched surveillance video and followed up with the nightclub Bella was at earlier that evening. They’ve also instructed a forensic team to do a workup on the unit she fell from.
Nothing brought them to a conclusion as to how Bella went over the edge.
“Realistically, we would need someone, potentially who was there, to come forward and tell us something they’re not telling us,” Worth explained.
He too, voices his own suspicion.
“I have a hard time believing that nobody knows how she went over the balcony,” he said.
In the absence of new evidence, police said the investigation into Bella’s death is currently sitting in a “parked position;” technically still open, but investigative efforts are dependent on fresh information coming in.
That has lead the Laboucan and McLean family to a dead end. They have never received any police files on the case, nor have they been granted access to Bella’s autopsy report.
Christa Big Canoe is the legal advocacy director with Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto.
“While there’s an ongoing investigation, it’s difficult to get information,” says Big Canoe, who is currently working with the Laboucan and McLean family.
For cases like Bella’s, when the family is stuck with an idle file, Big Canoe said paperwork from both the police and coroner are essential in order to determine how to move forward.
“For instance, do they have cause for civil action ... could they be going after people in this circumstance that were at the party? Could they be going after the police? Could they be holding the building accountable?”
Melina said they have requested files from the Toronto police and the coroner twice over the past two years, the second time in 2014.
She’s hopeful something will come back in the next couple of months so decisions can be made.
“The coroner ... they were surprised that it wasn’t solved,” she said. “It looks like we’re getting some traction with the coroner’s office but not with the police per say.”
In her life, Melina said her little sister had a sparkle.
Bella was a vibrant young woman with an outgoing spirit. She was a talented dancer, and she had a knack for making traditional Cree art and beadwork -- she was from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation in Alberta.
After moving to Toronto from her home in northern Alberta in 2011 to study fashion, her next step was to apply to fashion school in London, England.
In an opinion piece written by Big Canoe and Melina for the CBC in 2015, the pair voiced their support for a national inquiry, but only if it is lead by and for the families of missing and murdered indigenous women.