'There's still grief and there's still sorrow' in Sagkeeng a year after Serena McKay's death

Sentencing begins this week for one of two teens who pleaded guilty in connection with the death of schoolmate Serena McKay, a year after videos surfaced showing the girl being beaten on a Manitoba First Nation.

Healing lodge planned in her honour as accused head to sentencing

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

A year after videos surfaced showing Serena McKay being fatally beaten on a Manitoba First Nation, a teacher says the community remains in mourning. 

But as sentencing begins this week for one of McKay's schoolmates who pleaded guilty in connection with her death, the community is looking for ways to heal, including building a sweat lodge at the school in Serena's name. 

McKay was a Grade 12 student set to graduate Sagkeeng Anicinabe High School in Sagkeeng First Nation, 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, when her body was found April 23, 2017 outside of a home in the community.

Allan Courchene, a Grade 12 teacher at the high school, said a year later the tragedy is still being felt in his community.

"There's still grief and there's still sorrow," he said. "Something tragic like this, it will never go away. It's always on the backs of people's minds — how could it have been prevented?"

Days after her death, two of her peers from the school, aged 16 and 17, were charged with second-degree murder.

The 17-year-old, who has since turned 18, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in December and is expected to be sentenced in a Winnipeg courtroom this week. She cannot be named because she was a minor at the time of McKay's death.

Likely died of hypothermia

Court previously heard McKay and the two accused were together at a house party on April 22, 2017 along with four other teens. 

At some point, McKay was kicked out of the party and a fight broke out between her and the younger of the two accused, court heard. 

Two videos recorded on the older accused's phone show McKay being beaten in a yard.

After the fight, the two teens went back inside the house, where they spent the night.

McKay, who remained outside, did not survive.

Court heard she likely died of hypothermia. According to a pathologist, she may have been unable to seek protection from the cold because of her injuries and the amount of alcohol in her system.

Healing lodge planned in McKay's honour

McKay, who grew up in Winnipeg, was a longtime family friend of Courchene's and was living with him and his wife while she attended high school in the community. He said McKay was wonderfully artistic. She was eager to graduate and begin working.

"I think of her everyday. I have a big picture of her right by desk," he said. "She's always in our hearts."

In her honour, the school set up an annual $1,000 bursary for a student who shows a passion for pursuing the arts. The next recipient will be selected in June.

Courchene said he is also in the process of securing funding to build a healing and sweat lodge at the school in McKay's name. He envisions it as a space where students can connect, talk and hold traditional ceremonies.

"The sweat lodge in the community is a place of prayer where people could freely talk and give them a lot of teachings," he said. "They could talk if there are any ailments that are bugging them. We don't want anything like that to happen [again]."

Courchene said he is hopeful the healing lodge can be in place by next September. 

The second teen, who was 16 the time of McKay's death, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in January. She will be sentenced at a later date and the Crown is asking for an adult sentence.