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'I believe somebody hurt my baby,' mother tells MMIWG inquiry

Delaine Copenace was found dead in Lake of the Woods in Kenora in March 2016, a little more than three weeks after she was reportedly last seen.
Delaine 2
Delaine Copenace, 16, was found dead in Kenora in March 2016. (Supplied by national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women)

THUNDER BAY – Beginning with police waiting three days after her 16-year-old daughter went missing to become fully involved in the search, Anita Ross remains unsatisfied with the investigation into her disappearance and death.

Her daughter, Delaine Copenace, was found dead in Lake of the Woods in Kenora on March 22, 2016, about three weeks after she was reportedly last seen. Her death was determined by police and the coroner to be an accidental drowning.

“I don’t believe my daughter’s body was there the entire time she was missing,” Ross told the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women during the public community hearing in Thunder Bay on Monday.

“I believe my daughter was abducted and held against her will.”

As many as 50 families and survivors are expected to share their stories with the inquiry, represented by commissioners Brian Eyolfson and Michele Audette, while in Thunder Bay through the two public sessions on Monday and Tuesday, as well as privately on Wednesday or through statement gatherers. Before arriving in Thunder Bay, the inquiry had received 594 testimonials at seven hearings.

Ross, who spent more than two hours and often fought through tears, was the first to provide testimony publicly. 

The teenager's body was found off the Lake Street docks, mere steps from the Ontario Provincial Police detachment in Kenora.

After the body was found, Ross said one of her shoes was found about 40 feet away. Neither the body nor that shoe had been discovered when police dive teams and underwater search resources combed the lake less than two weeks earlier.

“We watched those divers,” Ross said. “Four whole days we saw them diving in and out of there.”

Ross also raised concerns with post-mortem examinations conducted by the coroner, saying she believed the autopsy took less than an hour to complete. Other issues included several bruises to the right side of the body that the pathologist seemingly couldn’t account for or injuries she observed at the funeral home that weren’t documented.

The pathologist suggested the bruises resulted from Delaine being intoxicated and falling over, a notion that Ross still doesn’t agree with.

“I believe somebody hurt my baby,” Ross said tearfully.

Ross first sensed something was wrong on Feb. 28 when her daughter, who was described as a happy, artistic and loving child who became timid and shy into her pre-teen years, was not at home around 6 p.m.

“She was always home,” Ross said. “Her bedroom was her safe haven. I never had to worry about her because she was always there.”

After about three hours, she contacted police and was told Delaine was in custody. However, when she went to the station to pick her up, Ross learned her older daughter had told officers she was Delaine.

They drove around for the next few hours and reported to police Delaine was missing at 2 a.m. Ross said officers didn’t come to her home until more than 12 hours later, when one officer told her not to worry and that her daughter was most likely drunk or out partying.

Audette noted law enforcement officials have previously said the 48 hours after a person goes missing is the most critical time to search.

Concern about the quality of investigations has been a recurring theme raised during the inquiry, Eyolfson told reporters during an early afternoon break.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of concerns about policing, police investigations, response time to people raising concerns about their loved ones being missing,” Eyolfson said. “We’ve been hearing these sorts of truths across the country in various locations.”

On March 14, 2016, after the water search concluded, Ross was told police were suspending the search.

“That broke my heart,” she said. “They only searched for her for 14 days. It was like they gave up on her.”