She was outgoing and had lots of friends.
She was great with kids.
She liked doing art in school.
She wasn’t good at sports, or particularly liked them. But she never missed out on a chance to play.
She had dreams and goals. She wanted to see the world. She wanted to go to college.
She was a daughter, a friend, a student and a sister.
She was 15 years old.
Roderica Ribbonleg was last seen on July 5, 2020, around John D’Or Prairie, a remote First Nations settlement about 700 kilometres almost due north of Edmonton.
Just over a week later, on July 13, RCMP announced that a body, soon identified as the missing teen, was discovered in a wooded area not far from where she disappeared.
A Walk for Justice took place in early October. Supporters trekked 127 kilometers from John D’Or Prairie to High Level, where they gathered outside the courthouse. Scheduled to appear inside was Jason Tallcree, the man accused of killing Ribbonleg.
Ribbonleg’s family, friends and community want people to know she was more than just a name in a police news release. And definitely more than just a name on a seemingly never ending and always growing list of missing and murdered Indigenous women. A list already well known in Little Red River Cree Nation.
Tracey D’or stood in her empty classroom at Sister Gloria School in Garden River as she spoke recently about Ribbonleg, her younger cousin.
She talks about how Ribbonleg, once a student at the school, would come to her classroom to hang out during breaks.
“She’d come in and chill with us teachers. Just tell us about her day and if something was bothering her,” said D’or, the empty desks in her class spread out around her.
“When she was feeling down she’d come into our classroom and just chill in there.”
She pointed to the bean bag chairs sitting in the corner. “Chilling on the bean bags, which was the favourite part of our classroom for her. The bean bags…” she said, as her voice trails off.
D’or had last seen Ribbonleg just before March break. She didn’t know her cousin had moved back to John D’Or Prairie until Facebook posts about a search party being formed to look for the missing teenager started popping up. D’or started messaging friends and family in John D’Or Prairie and Fox Lake, asking if they had seen Ribbonleg.
“But nobody had seen her anywhere,” said D’or.
Like everyone else, D’or tried messaging Ribbonleg on Facebook and Snapchat. “I thought she was visiting somewhere with no internet. I had no idea where she was.”
Three months later, those messages sit unopened. Never to be received.
Conroy Sewepagaham is the chief of Little Red River Cree Nation. He wears a Superman mask, has a calming presence about him and speaks slowly with a deep voice.
The voice for an entire community.
Little Red River Cree Nation sits along the Peace River in northern Alberta with a population of about 5,500. It’s composed of three Woodland Cree communities: Fox Lake, John D’Or Prairie, and Garden River. Fox Lake is the most populated of the three, despite not having year-round road access.
This summer, Sewepagaham’s leadership was put to the test.
On July 11, the chief shared an image on Facebook from the Fort Vermilion RCMP asking people to be on the lookout for Ribbonleg. In the photo, the teen smiles sweetly in what appears to be a Snapchat image with pink heart emojis floating over her head.
“Tansi – please read, share and keep an eye out for our tiny homefire!” he said in his post.
Sewepagaham often uses the term “homefire” when speaking about Ribbonleg. The Cree word for woman, iskwew, is derived from another Cree word, iskotew, which means fire. The concept of homefire goes back to the traditional role of Cree women – the backbone and strength of a home. They are considered the keepers of the home fire. When women are strong, the home fire is strong. Sewepagaham explained that traditionally, the role of men is to ensure that the home fires keep growing stronger and they don’t go out.
In an interview with Global News last month, Sewepagaham said he remembers telling Ribbonleg’s family at the time of her disappearance, “Don’t worry about it. We’re going to find her. She’s safe and sound.”
Sewepagaham said initially, many thought Ribbonleg had just taken off for a few days. Everyone was hopeful that she would soon be home safe.
But on July 12, just a day after sharing his post about watching for Ribbonleg, Sewepagaham took to Facebook again: “We found our tiny homefire, but not in the way we all hoped for. The families are thankful for all the volunteers that came out and helped with the search. The families are also requesting for everyone to refrain from sharing or making assumptions on all social media platforms until a thorough investigation is done.”
A day later, Global News received an anonymous tip that the body of a young girl had been found in John D’Or Prairie. The tipster also alleged that the girl had been murdered. That afternoon, official word came from the Alberta RCMP Major Crimes Unit. Clothing had been found in a wooded area on the “old Fox Lake” road near John D’Or Prairie. A body was found nearby. The release said the identity was unknown.
On Sewepagaham’s authority, Little Red River Cree Nation posted a lockdown notice for Garden River and John D’Or Prairie: “This is in response to the investigation of the death of one of our young Nation Members.”
On his personal Facebook page, he explained: “This is the best possible way for all of us to aid with the investigation by staying put and not driving around our communities. Please be patient, as I want to make sure no stone is left unturned and find out what happened to our tiny homefire.” The lockdown, which only lasted a day, was an extension of a COVID-19 curfew that had already been put in place.
On July 15, the autopsy report confirmed that the body had been identified as Ribbonleg.
“It was heartbreaking because I was really hopeful that she would just come home to us safe and sound,” said Sewepagaham.
Sewepagaham, along with some colleagues, went to see the girl’s family.
“Breaking that news to the family members was hard,” he said.
D’or remembers sitting on her couch, frozen with disbelief.
“Your first thought is, ‘it can’t be true. She was just here a couple months ago. She was just here yesterday,’” she said. “But that’s the reality.”
The news hit Little Red River hard. Things were tense. Sewepagaham again took to Facebook, posting videos in Cree and English to keep band members calm and informed. People were angry and scared, he said.
“After her body was found, that was when our work was really cut out for us,” said Sewepagaham.
Police were investigating, but frustration grew when answers didn’t come fast enough for some in the community. Sewepagaham again reminded his people to be patient.
“You have to keep in mind, if we put ourselves in [the investigators] shoes and it’s someone’s daughter, yeah, you want to make sure it’s done right,” he said.
As Chief, he was walking a fine line between growing public pressure and respecting the investigative process.
Sewepagaham said he personally struggled with Ribbonleg’s death. He thought often of what her mom, her dad and her grandparents were experiencing, saying, “I can’t imagine how many memories flood in on a daily basis.”
He had to turn off his phone for a couple of days to recoup and reground himself. Sewepagaham admits he hasn’t felt the full effect of the tragedy yet due to his role as Chief leading band members through the investigation and healing process.
“When the work stops and whenever the job ends it will hit me,” said Sewepagaham.
“Nothing would have ever prepared me for what we had to deal with in terms of the pandemic, but also with the death of our homefire. That one shook us to the core quite a bit.”
As days turned into weeks, rumours swirled. In a small community, Sewepagaham knew that was only a matter of time. He refused to entertain the hushed whispers as RCMP continued their work. He was adamant on keeping the peace between families.
Finally, an update from investigators came on August 20. Jason Alec Tallcree, 35, had been arrested and charged with first degree murder. The charges have not been proven in court.
Sewepagaham said the charges provided a sense of relief for some, but not all community members.
“I think to some extent it was somewhat like having some closure…but also more anger kind of stirred up. Animosity,” he said.
Malena Loonskin, 26, went missing after leaving her home in Little Red River in the early morning hours of June 23, 2014. Her body was discovered eight days later in the woods not far from where she was last seen.
Her common-law husband, Tallcree, was charged with second degree murder and offering indignity to human remains in the death. Those charges were stayed one year later and he had been back living in the John D’Or community ever since.
D’or also knew Loonskin, the mother of three little boys. saying “She was a good one. A good person.”
Thinking back to the last time they saw each other, D’or says Loonskin was joking around, laughing. Loonskin was easy to talk to and quick to start up a conversation. She was cheerful, said D’or.
D’or was part of the search party looking for Loonskin in 2014. It was one of the reasons she couldn’t join the search for her cousin.
“I couldn’t bring myself to go to [Ribbonleg’s] search party. I was in two searches like that and each time the outcome wasn’t good. I was nervous about it,” she said. D’or didn’t want to be the one to find Ribbonleg.
As the community mourns the loss of not one, but two “homefires,” Ribbonleg and Loonskin are victims of a disease that has plagued Canada for decades. It is only recently that the rest of the country has begun to understand that Indigenous communities have been dealing with the disappearance and deaths of their own women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA.
In Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, published in 2019, RCMP confirmed 1,181 cases of “police-recorded incidents of Aboriginal female homicides and unresolved missing Aboriginal females” between 1980 and 2012. But the same report says that in reality, no exact number is known due to a lack of reporting.
Sewepagaham believes that action needs to be taken. He’s drafted a bylaw that would permit “removal of individuals from the Nation communities where removal is necessary for the health and safety of Nation Members and in order to preserve order in the Nation communities.” His biggest concern is ensuring it doesn’t infringe on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“It takes a community to raise a child and it takes a community to protect one,” said Sewepagaham.
As September turned to October, Ribbonleg and Loonskin became the faces of a “Walk for Justice.”
Organized by community members, a group as large as 30 on some days, walked 127 kilometres from John D’Or to the town of High Level over the course of five days. Family members of Loonskin and Ribbonleg led the crowd of supporters. Photographs sent to Global News show the group dressed in red with shirts that say “Walk for Justice.” Images of Loonskin and Ribbonleg are on banners and taped to the front of trucks.
D’or was asked to represent Ribbonleg’s family. She says it was an honor because she had a similar idea, but didn’t know how to execute the plan. She felt hopeless.
“I prayed about a justice walk happening,” said D’or.
Money for groceries, posters, banners, face masks, hand sanitizer, blankets, a mobile kitchen, and vehicles were donated by various groups and individuals to support the walk.
Velma Laboucan, one of the organizers, sat outside a Tim Hortons in High Level on Monday evening for a phone interview with Global News. She was happy, laughing. She was surprised her feet weren’t as sore or blistered as she had anticipated.
She said the walk itself was emotional.
“You could just see the determination in those women. They kept walking even though they had blisters and cramps,” said Laboucan.
Each day started at 10 a.m. with a prayer. The group walked about 25 kilometers a day, breaking every five kilometres or so. Some on foot, some part of the car convoy.
People would deliver coffee, snacks, insoles and shoes to make sure everyone was comfortable and able to keep going. Walkers would shuttle in and out throughout the days.
The group completed the walk a day earlier than planned, arriving in High Level on the evening of Oct. 4. That night, the North Peace Tribal Council paid for hotel rooms so the walkers had a warm bed.
The next day, supporters gathered outside the High Level courthouse — where Tallcree was scheduled to appear. Videos sent to Global News show a group of about 100 people.
Some are in a circle, holding hands around a drummer, a red dress hanging from a tree — a symbol for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Some wore black face masks with red hands covering their mouths.
“For me, it was hard. Especially to see the ladies walk back and forth. They were on edge. Scared. Didn’t know what to expect,” said Laboucan.
Tallcree is scheduled to appear in court again on November 2.
Another walk and protest outside the courthouse is already being planned.
Sewepagaham recognizes that the death of Indigenous women isn’t an isolated issue faced by only his First Nations community.
“Of course we have a plethora of things that come to mind when you think of First Nations and it’s usually negative things,” said Sewepagaham.
“What we do in our lives, on reserve or off reserve, our journeys do intersect. What we’re trying to do is braid those stories together in the hopes of bounding Canadian society and make them understand, ‘Look, we’re human beings too. We’re no greater or lesser than you.’”
Sewepagaham hopes the Walk for Justice opens the door to bigger conversations.
“Really at the end of the day, regardless of the colour of my skin, these are human beings that deserve justice.
“They’re our daughters. Our homefires.”
View original article here Source