The Death of Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace

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EARLY LIFE:

Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace and her twin brother, Braedon, were born on March 6, 2002 to their parents, Marlin Kokopenace and Christa Ackabee. The family, which also included older brother Calvin, are members of Grassy Narrows First Nation, located in northwestern Ontario.

Growing up, Azraya was described as a sweet girl filled with innocence. She had a quiet and loving nature, and she wasn’t afraid to show her humorous side. She was known for her bright smile and hugs, as well as for her love of fashion, and she was seen as a positive light to those in her community. However, despite this positivity, she was subjected to bullying by her peers and subsequently dropped out of school.

Children’s aid were a constant presence in the family’s life, both before and after Azraya’s birth, due to concerns related to inadequate supervision for the children, domestic violence and alcohol use.

At 17 years old, her brother, Calvin, was admitted to Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora, Ontario due to complications from muscular dystrophy and mercury poisoning. He passed away not long after, surrounded by family. The mercury poisoning he suffered is the result of industrial pollution Grassy Narrows First Nation experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to limited physical and mental health services on the reserve, Calvin – as well as many other residents who experience symptoms – was unable to access comprehensive treatment for what he was going through.

Calvin’s death greatly affected Azraya. According to her family, she started to demonstrate suicidal behaviour, which resulted in her receiving grief counselling. She moved to a nearby city to live with a relative, but was hospitalized four months later for suicidal ideation, which resulted in her being briefly taken into the care of children’s aid. After a suicide attempt, Azraya was placed in three short-term placements while she awaited admission into a treatment foster home located in southern Ontario. Once there, she received one-on-one supervision for five months. However, after a visit from her family, she again began thinking about suicide and was re-admitted to hospital.

Feeling alone and trapped, Azraya eventually moved back in with her family for approximately six months while under a supervision order, a move her family was supportive of. The 14-year-old is said to have frequently missed classes during this time, and due to what she deemed “escalating challenges at home” asked to be put back into care for continued treatment.

DISAPPEARANCE & DISCOVERY:

On the night of April 15, 2016, Azraya attended a house party, which resulted in her missing the 9:00pm curfew set by the group home she was staying at. As such, the police were notified. They soon located her and dropped off the reportedly intoxicated teenager at Lake of the Woods District Hospital. While there, she was transferred to an agency worker, before leaving of her own accord around 11:20pm. According to a witness, she was seen walking to a nearby wooded area.

It soon became clear that Azraya had gone missing. However, her family was not notified about her disappearance until around midday on April 16, 2016. According to her father, the Ontario Provincial Police flagged him down while he was en route to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Upon speaking with them, he was asked to contact the Kenora OPP detachment for news regarding his daughter.

Numerous organizations were involved in the search for Azraya, including the OPP, the Northwest Region Emergency Response Team and a police canine unit. They initially searched the wooded area across from the hospital, but were unable to locate her or any evidence to indicate her whereabouts. They are about to bring in additional units and other resources when the Bear Clan Patrol located in Winnipeg offered to help in the search.

On April 17, 2016, Darryl Contois of the Bear Clan Patrol was walking with a group in the area’s dense vegetation. They were performing a zigzag search along the highway, adjacent to three OPP cars, when he noticed an eagle flying overhead. When he walked toward where it had been, he saw Azraya hanging from a tree, deceased. Upon locating her body, he walked the group to a nearby car dealership to inform them of the news and contacted the OPP.

INVESTIGATION:

Searchers recall seeing a unknown Jeep parked near the search area around the time Azraya’s body was found. However, no one knows who owns it.

According to Marlin, he was informed his daughter had died by suicide and that the OPP didn’t suspect foul play in her death. This led the family to question why they weren’t notified about her disappearance sooner.

Despite her family saying she was in the care of Anishinaabe Abinoojii Child and Family Services at the time of her death, the organization’s executive director would not confirm if she was indeed a client. It’s currently unclear if anyone from the organization was with her at the hospital before she disappeared, but given the belief she was in their care, Ontario’s Paediatric Death Review Committee looked into the case. This is standard procedure each time a child dies while in the care of the welfare system.

Despite reports that Azraya was picked up by police because she had missed curfew, the OPP won’t officially comment on why they had contact with her on the night she died. While they have publicly stated that no internal investigations have resulted from any officer’s conduct, they wouldn’t say she was in their custody. This is a critical point in the case, as any death that occurs in police custody within Ontario results in a mandatory inquest.

Not long after her death, Azraya’s family released video footage of an altercation she had with police a few weeks before. The two videos, which show the altercation at different angles, show a struggle between her and two police officers who were called to the scene after someone reported she’d appeared intoxicated. In the video, Azraya is seen lying on her back on the ground, resisting, while one of the officers tries to restrain her. Throughout, she is heard shouting that she wants to go home, while an unidentified male suggests the officers get a hold of her parents.

After the altercation, Marlin claims he saw bruises on Azraya’s arms and legs that hadn’t been present before. The OPP have refused to comment on the nature of what’s shown in the videos, given the nature of the case. Residents of Grassy Narrows First Nation say the footage shows how local police don’t know how to respond to Indigenous teenagers experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Azraya is reportedly one of four members of her family to have died while in police custody. In 1992, her uncles, Elvis and Morris Keewatin, drowned while trying to swim to shore after officers took their boat, leaving them stranded on an island. The pair were believed to have been sniffing gas at the time, and an inquest into their deaths recommended that police having better training and resources in order to understand the community and deal with distressed members in a more appropriate manner. Seven years later, in 1999, her grandmother, Mary Eliza Keewatin, passed away after being picked up for public intoxication. She had been stabbed in her cell, which the officers hadn’t noticed, and she died after going into medical distress.

Azraya’s aunt, Lorenda Kokopenace, has also had run-ins with the OPP, once when she was a child and again in her early 20s. She has said that both experiences have left her with a negative opinion of the police.

In June 2016, MPP of Kenora-Rainy River, Sarah Campbell, wrote an open letter to then-Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau, requesting an inquest into Azraya’s death. The letter was cc’d to then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, as well as the Minister of Community Safety and Concerns and the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

In October 2016, her cousin, Christian Kokopenace, was stabbed in the head only hours after being released from police custody. As a result, he lapsed into a three-day coma. His mother and Azraya’s aunt, Lorenda, crowdfunded a reward for information about the attack, as she felt the police were ignoring the case.

On the first anniversary of Azraya’s death, her parents and friends attended a vigil, hosted by the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization. It was hosted at Knox United Church and saw a march through Kenora, which saw residents calling for an inquest into her death. It ended with a candlelight vigil by the tree where her body was found, where Anishinaabe grandmothers sang a traditional mourning song.

The Lake of the Woods District Hospital also issued a statement on the anniversary, expressing their condolences, but refused to answer any questions about the night Azraya died.

Those who knew Azraya, as well as the Grand Council Treaty 3, the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization, and the Chief and Council of Grassy Narrows First Nation, continuously called for an inquest into the teenager’s death, as the full circumstances surrounding it have never been shared. They feel she didn’t receive the help she needed, and her aunt believes an inquest would help identify the gaps in social services offered to First Nations youth. However, there has never been inquest, despite the aforementioned requirement that any in-custody death must be investigated through a mandatory coroner’s inquest.

The family wrote a letter to Kathleen Wynne asking for an inquest, but she replied it was not up to her to call one. The lack of an inquest has frustrated those close to Azraya.

Azraya’s death was brought up to the House of Commons when NDP MP Charlie Angus put forward a motion calling on the Canadian federal government to comply with a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The ruling had found that Canada discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by failing to provide them with the same level of welfare services as other children, and it ordered that the government cease their discriminatory practices and overhaul the system and funding model to provide culturally appropriate services to First Nations children. Angus further explained how Canada is failing Indigenous youth and cited Azraya’s death as an example of this.

In November 2017, Azraya’s death was included in an expert review of the deaths of eleven young people who had been in the care of Ontario’s child welfare services between January 1, 2014 and July 31, 2017. Seven of the children were Indigenous youth from northwestern Ontario, and all had been placed in care outside of their home communities. The announcement was made by Ontario’s chief coroner, who cited Azraya’s death as having played a role in the development of the review’s scope. The review looked at how the eleven youth were cared for and any issues that may have arisen as a result. It also looked into the circumstances around each death.

The seven experts of the panel had knowledge in the areas that had been identified as concerns in all eleven deaths, ranging from psychiatric expertise and government administration, to Indigenous healthcare and traditional approaches and community-based mental health treatment. At the end of the review, they were to inform the investigations into the deaths and provide recommendations for the handling of future cases.

Despite being happy that a review was happening, Azraya’ family worried it would focus more on the welfare piece and not pay enough attention to the roles of the police and hospital.

Despite having officially closed the investigation into Azraya’s death, the OPP refuse to comment. Her family has never been given access to the autopsy report, as the provincial coroner’s office said it would not be made public, and they have yet to view the toxicology report. Despite claiming to consider an inquest, there has been no word regarding if one will ever occur.

Marlin has numerous unanswered questions regarding his daughter’s final hours and death, which makes him feel there’s too many unknowns to officially draw any conclusions. He wants to know how a 14-year-old girl could walk away from the hospital without anyone stopping her, and he wants to know why the hospital hadn’t done more to remove any objects she could have used to commit suicide, given her suicidal tendencies. As well, he’s unable to understand why the OPP were unable to locate Azraya, given how close her body was to the hospital, and he wants to know if the person who supplied her alcohol or drugs on the night she died could be held culpable in her death.

Ultimately, the family wishes to know why the OPP have been so reluctant to share information regarding the night Azraya died.

AFTERMATH:

Solving the mystery surrounding Azraya’s death has become an important issue to the youth of Grassy Narrows First Nation, who view her final days as an embodiment of what they call the “intergenerational tragedy” that’s unique to their community: mercury poisoning. Her death raised the arm about the mental health implications of mercury poisoning – depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety and self-loathing – and how they’ve affected those in the community who were not alive during the time the industrial pollution took place.

Her friends feel her death is the direct result of the grief she was suffering due to her brother’s death. They feel her quest for help led her to Kenora that night. Alex Hundert of the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization feels the fact she died while under the care of the police, the hospital and child welfare services shows a systemic failure and level of negligence on the part of the institutions charged with helping her.

In order to raise awareness about Azraya’s death, local youth are turning to music. A song titled “Home To Me” was written and recorded by those within the community and her friend, Darwin Fobister, who wanted to bring hope to the community. He has since become someone those struggling with suicidal thoughts come to when in need.

Azraya’s death, as well as that of 16-year-old Delaine Copenace in early 2016, who was found dead within sight of the OPP station in Kenora, has inspired a group of Indigenous women in the area to form their own Bear Clan Patrol to complement the existing police services in Kenora. Following in the footsteps of the Winnipeg chapter, the volunteer patrol provides conflict resolution, rides and escorts for those who don’t have a safe means of getting home, search-and-rescue services and a visible presence on the streets of the city. They walk as a group along the docks where downtown Kenora meets the waters of Lake of the Woods.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact the OPP at 1-807-548-5534.

Image Credit: CBC

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