So chief, where are you now?

No help for Rinelle in her time of need


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A weather warning was in effect at 5:11 p.m. Thursday when her phone call came; both out of the blue, and, more appropriately perhaps, out of the grey gathering of storm clouds in the distance.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/07/2015 (2800 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A weather warning was in effect at 5:11 p.m. Thursday when her phone call came; both out of the blue, and, more appropriately perhaps, out of the grey gathering of storm clouds in the distance.

It was Rinelle Harper’s grandmother. She was calling because the family was in desperate, almost immediate, need of help. As it turned out, I wasn’t the first person Carol Harper had called or spoken to that day in hopes of finding help. As usual, I was the last. What, I wondered, had happened now.


— — —


It has been eight months since 16-year-old Rinelle Harper was brutally beaten and left for dead downtown on the banks of the Assiniboine River.

So badly beaten, in fact, that she is scheduled for more surgery on Monday. The story was big national news. Particularly because when it happened; just three months after the bound body of Tina Fontaine, another Manitoba First Nation teenager, had been pulled from the Red River near downtown Winnipeg. And at a time when Canadians had a heightened awareness and concern over the hundreds of murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls.

The public reacted with an outpouring of sympathy and even gifts meant to comfort Rinelle.

Even though she was a minor, police convinced her family to allow her name to be used in hopes it might lead to arrests.

Amazingly, a month later Rinelle spoke at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations where she called for a national inquiry into her murdered and missing sisters. The 3,000 chiefs and delegates gave her a standing ovation, and an eagle feather.

Then Rinelle largely disappeared from the headlines.

Until earlier this month when Rinelle and her family were the recipients of more traumatic news.

The family home at Garden Hill First Nation burned to the ground.

It happened early on July 13, just when the family had been preparing to move back home to Garden Hill for the summer.

They had no insurance.

“We think it’s arson,” Rinelle’s mother, Julie Harper, said Thursday when her mother-in-law passed her the phone.

What else could it have been?

The hydro had been turned off.

But fire wasn’t the reason the grandmother was calling.

At least not the primary reason.

Carol Harper was reaching out because the family is supposed to be working on the reserve this summer.

All of them; father, mother, Rinelle and her year-older sister, Rayne.

But since they have nowhere to live, they can’t work on the reserve. No jobs means no income to pay the rent for the Winnipeg house where they live while Julie is going to business management school. Her husband Caesar, who works seasonally on the reserve, is on employment assistance.

That’s why they were calling me.

In hopes that I would put out the word that they need work. And fast.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Julie said when I asked what kind of work. “As long as I pay the rent.”

She said she had worked as a receptionist in Garden Hill. Before the fire, Caesar had construction and carpentry work lined up back home. Rinelle and Rayne also had summer jobs on the reserve.

After the girls’ grandmother called looking for help, I dropped by the home in the West End where Caesar was visiting.

“It’s sad for them to have no income at all,” Carol Harper said.

And worse, I would think, to face the possibility of being homeless in Winnipeg, too. Carol would make room for them, of course. But she and her husband are full up with five foster children; two teenage girls and three boys, ages five, nine and 12.

“I’ve been phoning around,” she said. “But there’s no help from anywhere.”

Carol tried to reach Niki Ashton, the NDP member of Parliament for Churchill. She even called Sophie Trudeau because the wife of federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had phoned the family offering support after Rinelle was attacked.

Carol couldn’t reach either of them directly.

But she spoke with David Harper, the grand chief of the Island Lake area, and asked if he could find summer work for Rinelle and Rayne.

When I spoke with him Friday there was no indication he had found anything for them. Or even knew where to look.

All of which reminded me of how readily so many aboriginal leaders put the physically and emotionally traumatized Rinelle front and centre with the media within weeks and even days of her almost dying.

Most notably when she gave that speech at the Assembly of First Nations gathering. And they gave her a standing ovation and an eagle feather.

She and her family need more than a showy gesture now, though.

So who’s going to help Rinelle?

Now that she’s yesterday’s news.


Updated on Thursday, December 24, 2015 2:54 PM CST: Updated

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