Manitoba

'It has to end': Sagkeeng mother calls for action following murder of Serena McKay

A Sagkeeng mother hopes Serena McKay's tragic death will be the catalyst for change on the Manitoba First Nation.

Vigils planned in Winnipeg, Sagkeeng to honour slain teen and heal community

'We need to open our eyes now in Sagkeeng and this has to end,' Cheyenne Guimond says of the violence and drugs in her home community. (CBC News)

When Cheyenne Guimond moved back to Sagkeeng First Nation last fall after spending a year away, she noticed life was different.

"It's a beautiful place, it really is, but the drugs have taken over," she said. "You see a lot of people unhealthy looking. You know they're on something, but you don't exactly know what."

The community of roughly 4,000 people wraps around the banks of the Winnipeg River, 100 kilometres northeast of the Manitoba capital.

It has the highest number of cases of unsolved missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada, according to a 2015 CBC analysis of outstanding cases. 

Guimond says she often chooses to stay home. This week, the pregnant mother of seven is questioning whether it's still safe to live here.

On Sunday, the body of a 19-year-old woman was found not far from her house. The victim, Serena McKay, had recently moved to Sagkeeng and was set to graduate high school this June. Two teenage girls she went to school with, age 16 and 17, are charged with her murder.

Serena McKay, 19, died in Sagkeeng First Nation in April 2017. Two teenage girls have pleaded guilty in her death. (Submitted by family)

"It's shocking. It's horrible," Guimond said, fighting back tears. "She is the same age as my daughter. Like, what if that was my daughter? It's sad."

Graphic video of a girl being beaten has been circulating on Facebook and McKay is believed to be the victim in it. RCMP are reviewing the video and a spokesperson for Facebook said the company is investigating as well. Meanwhile, Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson is calling on Facebook to delete it. 

Guimond refuses to click on it. She calls the whole situation horrific. 

"Something has to be done for this young girl," she said.

'We need to heal this community'

The death has gripped the First Nation. A crisis response team has been brought in to support students and staff at the local high school. On Tuesday, the tension could be felt in the hallways. Straight-faced students filed in and out of the school office just looking for someone talk to.

Guimond doesn't know McKay personally but as a mother and community member she said the young woman's death pushed her into action. She's helping to organize a vigil on Thursday to honour McKay and get the community together. 

"This is so wrong on so many levels and you can't turn a blind eye to this," she said. "It had to take this young girl to violently die to speak up? That's what I thought. Enough is enough."

Traditional drummers, singers, elders alongside band members and council are set to gather at the pow wow grounds, next to Sagkeeng's arena, Thursday at 6 p.m. 

Serena McKay, 19, was found dead outside of a home in Sagkeeng First Nation April 23, 2017. (CBC News)

A healing walk and smudge through the streets of the community is also planned for Thursday.

Guimond hopes McKay's death will the catalyst for change in her hometown — a place she remembers as "full of potential."

"We need to heal this community," Guimond said. "There has to be some kind of plan where we have to put an end to this [violence and drugs] somehow. A plan has to be taken."

Chief Derrick Henderson agrees this needs to serve as a wake up call.

"Prescription drug abuse, crystal meth, we're not immune to the gangs and things like that," he said. "How are we going to deal with some of these issues, right? Especially for the young people. They're getting involved in things that are not healthy."

But the community seems to be listening, Guimond said. The response to the vigil, in her words, has been overwhelming.

Winnipeg vigil planned for Saturday

One hundred kilometres away, in Winnipeg, people who can't be at the Thursday event are getting ready for another vigil to be held in the city over the weekend.

"[The vigil is] just something that I felt in my heart that I needed to do," said Rikki Olson, who lives in Winnipeg and knows the McKay family.

"I just felt like I needed to get the word out and show the family that is in Sagkeeng, and the family that is here that couldn't make it to Sagkeeng, that we could do something here for her memory and … show some support."

The vigil is set for Saturday evening and Olson said more than 200 people have expressed interest in attending.

One of the other organizers of the event, Jillian Wilson, said the McKay family knows about the plan and has given it their blessing.

"People need to open their eyes and see what's happening around us and we just need to come together and start healing," Wilson said.

The Winnipeg vigil will start on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Thunderbird House and end at Oodena Circle at The Forks.

About the Author

Jill Coubrough

Reporter, CBC News

Jill Coubrough is a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. Before joining CBC Manitoba, she worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and an associate producer for CBC's documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax. Email: jillian.coubrough@cbc.ca.