Thunder Bay

What Canada could learn from the search for a missing Indigenous girl in Kenora, Ont.

A year after a 16-year-old First Nations girl was found dead in Kenora, Ont., the racially divided city is learning how to cope with tragedy by finding common ground.

Delaine Copenace, 16, was found dead a year ago in Lake of the Woods

Anita Ross and her daughter Lori embrace at the grave of Ross' daughter Delaine Copenace, who was found dead on March 22, 2016. (Jon Castell/CBC)

The search for a missing 16-year-old First Nations girl in Kenora, Ont., last year ended in tragedy.

But the relationships built during the weeks of pursuing a common goal are giving many in the small city hope for a different future.

Delaine Copenace was a shy teen who didn't go out much and was happy to stay at home with her family, according to her mother, Anita Ross.

"She was loving, very silly all the times," Ross said. "I can't believe she's gone."

Anita Ross says there are too many outstanding questions about how her daughter, Delaine Copenace, came to be found in Lake of the Woods last year. (Jon Castell/CBC)

The Anishinaabe girl was last seen, within steps of her home, on Feb. 27, 2016. 

When dozens of people started volunteering to look for Copenace, Knox United Church offered its gymnasium for use as a headquarters.

'Racial problems'

It was a bold move for a church with few Indigenous members — a form of outreach that took some parishioners out of their comfort zone.

"In the history of Kenora, there were racial problems between Natives and non-Natives," said church choir member Fred Richardson. "It's not a very pleasant history, going right back to residential schools, but this time I found there was a coming together of everyone."

For weeks the church doors stayed open as volunteers recorded details of their searches. Meals were served and stories shared among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

At first some church members weren't on board with hosting the search for Delaine Copenance, but in the end, everyone was touched by the experience of working together, says Fred Richardson. (Jon Castell/CBC)

"I learned that the very sense of being together is probably the most important thing," said Knox's outreach minister Meg Illman-White. "To learn who each other is, as an individual, to see each other as real people, in our community."

Residential school legacy

That connection has been a surprisingly rare occurrence in a city that has the largest concentration of Indigenous people of any city in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada.

But Kenora has long history of racial tensions. It was home to three residential schools, starting in the 1890s and closing in the 1960s.

The occupation of Anicinaabe Park in 1974 brought the American Indian Movement to Canada to help in the push for fishing rights, access to education and better living conditions.

The discovery of Copenace's body on March 22, 2016, off a dock in downtown Kenora, not far from a police station, had the potential to open old wounds.

'The feather and the Bible were together' in the search for Delaine Copenace, says Daryl Redsky, who led the volunteer search effort. (Jon Castell/CBC)

"I mean we had dogs there, we had an airboat there, we had police there," said Daryl Redsky, the Anishinaabe leader who led the volunteer search. "That place was covered many times, and for her to show up there, metres from the police department?"

The coroner ruled the death accidental, but it's a conclusion Anita Ross doesn't accept.

When she was found, Copenace was wearing a jacket Ross had never seen, and the sweater she was wearing the night she disappeared has never turned up, Ross said.

Outstanding questions

Other questions continue to swirl through the grieving mother's every moment. What could explain the bruises on her daughter's arms and legs?

"I'm still unsatisfied with what [investigators] are telling me," she said on the first anniversary of Copenace's disappearance. "There are a lot of blank spaces that they still need to fill with explanations."

But the suspicions and the grief haven't fractured the fragile new relationships built last year during the search.

Knox United Church hosted the wake for Copenace and people were knit even closer by the intimacy of grief, Illman-White said.

'I think we learned communities have the potential to change and be changed,' says Meg Illman-White, the outreach minister at Knox United Church in Kenora, Ont. (Jon Castell/CBC)

"When tragedy happens … there is love. And if we can do that, at least, then things begin to change," she said. "Maybe things change so that other kids don't go missing, if we begin to see one another, not as strangers, but as one another's community."

'Opening up those doors'

Daryl Redsky said he has felt a change in Kenora during the past year.

"I think the church did well in terms of opening up those doors to the community, given the history," he said. "Both communities came together — the feather and the Bible were together ... trying to find that path to a relationship and having a conversation and trying to reconcile."

The community support for Copenace's family continues. The church hosted the candlelight vigil marking the first anniversary of her disappearance. Nearly 100 people walked from the church through town to the spot where her body was found.

There, they held their candles high against the dark sky and shouted, "We love you Delaine," as Ross hugged her family close and a women's drum group lifted their voices to the night.

The crowd holds their candles to the sky during a vigil marking the first anniversary of Delaine Copenace's disappearance. (Jon Castell/CBC)