'It broke my heart:' mother's call for 'justice' opens Thunder Bay MMIWG hearings

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Hearings in Thunder Bay, Ont., for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls began Monday with emotional testimony by the mother of Delaine Copenace, the 16-year-old girl who went missing and was subsequently found dead last year in Kenora, Ont.

Copenace was reported missing in Kenora on Feb. 28, 2016. On March 22, her body was found in Lake of the Woods, in the small city’s downtown, by municipal employees. The provincial chief coroner’s office said they found no evidence of foul play; her death was ruled an accidental drowning.

“There’s still no justice for my daughter, my poor daughter lies in a grave and our family’s suffering, still grieving,” Anita Ross told the inquiry.

Copenace’s family has never accepted the official finding. They believe she was killed.

Ross was the first to address inquiry commissioners Michèle Audette and Brian Eyolfson in the first of two days of open hearings in the northwestern Ontario city. 

Ross tearfully described a number of observations she made when she saw her daughter’s body.

Copenace had bruising, Ross said, including on her wrists, ankles and up and down her body; most of it, Ross said, on her right side. She was told it likely came from Copenace falling down while intoxicated but Ross questioned the lack of injury to the teen’s hands and knees. Ross said she also found a cut on her daughter’s head, something that the coroner’s report didn’t account for.

“I believe somebody hurt my baby,” Ross said. “Seeing your daughter and just saying that this was an accident, to me it wasn’t. Something more serious happened to her.”

In addition, Ross said she never got an answer to how Copenace could have been missing for almost a month with searchers combing the area where she was eventually found.

‘I started to scream’

Ross’s testimony lasted about three hours, covering the time from when she last saw Copenace alive to the discovery of her body. She said she essentially stopped taking care of herself during the weeks police and volunteers were searching.

On March 22, Ross said police came to her house in the morning, as they had been doing with daily updates. “They told me that they had found a body,” she said. After going downtown to the Kenora waterfront and waiting for a coroner to arrive, a detective told her the news she feared, that the body was her daughter’s.

“I started to scream,” Ross told the inquiry, sobbing. “I remember trying to run… I tried to run towards where her body was.”

Ross said she “butted heads” with Ontario Provincial Police several times during the search and only trusted two of the officers she dealt with. She added the day police told her they were calling off their search was devastating.

“It broke my heart,” she said. “They only searched for her for 14 days… it’s like they gave up on her.”

The national inquiry’s stop in Thunder Bay is the latest in a series of community hearings after five days in Mani-Utenam, Que., an Innu community near Sept-Îles, 650 kilometres northeast of Quebec City. Over this stop’s three days, commissioners are expected to hear from about 50 family members and survivors through public and private hearings, sharing testimonies and artistic expression panels.

 Wednesday’s sessions will be closed to the public and media.

Anita Ross, Michele Audette

Commissioner Michèle Audette hugs Ross after her testimony on Monday. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)


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