Bear Clan member reflects on finding missing Kenora teen
A Winnipeg Bear Clan member who joined the search for a missing Kenora teen is grateful he was able to help bring her family closure by finding her body.
Something about the photo of 14-year-old Azraya Kokopenace, with her bright smile and layered hoodies, triggered a response in Darryl Contois.
"Something was bugging me to go, to go help," he said, knowing there was a search happening out from the Lake of the Woods Hospital, the place she had last been seen leaving, that hadn't yet concluded. He thought of the searchers and of the girl's family.
Splitting the cost of gas and breakfast, Contois and a friend drove out to Kenora on Sunday morning. When they arrived in the area near the hospital, they performed a 'zig-zag' search of a heavily wooded area adjacent to 3 Ontario Provincial Police cars.
"We searched the cliffs and the area, the tunnels... and we were calling out her name and maybe she's hurt or something," he said.
"You don't know what to expect, especially with terrain like that."
They touched base with officers at the Ontario Provincial Police detachment, who also were searching the area, then went out again at 3 p.m., anxious to not waste the daylight.
The group was walking east along the highway towards the water and train tracks when something in the sky caught Contois' eye.
"I saw an eagle flying from the hospital and I was watching it and was looking at it flying," he said.
"All of a sudden it just stopped where the trees were and it did a circle. It circled around four times, then it took wind," he said.
"I lost sight of it. Maybe it was a sign for me to show me where she was. When I looked there, that's when I saw her," he said, referring to a grove of evergreens alongside the road.
Not wanting to alert the search party to what he saw, he turned around and led the group to a car dealership down the road. He told them then that he had already found her.
"They broke down and started crying. When I looked at her, I saw somebody so beautiful. And I just wanted to take her and hold onto her," said Contois.
He phoned police. Officers met him on the highway, and he showed them what he saw.
"I believe that eagle guided me there. To show me where she was."
Shortly after, Contois met with Kokopenace's parents at a hotel in Kenora.
"It's hard to face a parent to tell them that their baby's gone. Deceased. It hurts inside here if you're a parent," he said, patting his chest.
"I had the privilege of meeting them to tell them I found their baby. They said thank you and gave me a big hug. When you see that you feel the warmth, the love, that a parent gives. And that's my reward. Is being part of it. Bringing somebody home to them. Giving back their loved one," Contois said.
That night, the family of Delaine Copenace, who was found dead last month, held a smudging for the family, in honour of both girls.
Contois says Ontario Police were thankful to him and offered him crisis support for what he saw. He declined that, though he says the sight of Kokopenace in the woods will never leave him.
- Delaine Copenace: coroner finds no evidence of foul play
- Delaine Copenace, 16, found dead in Lake of the Woods in Kenora
"Kids, they're so troubled. The system let her down. It's a system that didn't hold onto her and that's where she ended up," he said.
"She wouldn't have been where she was if the system listened to her cries."
He said he wants to thank the Bear Clan, who through their strength in numbers and passion for what they do, are making a difference to families of missing people.
"My heart's out with the families. And I'll do my best to bring them home or find them. And I won't give up until I do," he said. Contois also volunteers with Drag the Red, a volunteer group that combs the rivers for missing people. He recently searched for Chase Martens and led a vigil for the family when his body was found.
"I'm just there for the person that's missing. My prayers, everything, are there for the family. And for the well being of all the searchers."
He plans to hold a vigil for Kokopenace at the place he found her in the coming days.
"The law enforcement, I thank them for being out there too. Giving their all, trying to find her and bring her home."