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.
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, 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.
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 were 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.
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.
There is a long history of the family not being able to trust police, including four family members who died while in custody, Azraya’s grandmother included.
Without any official reports completed three years later, Azraya’s family believes there is much more to her passing than they are being told.
Her death is unresolved. A daughter, granddaughter, sister.
Azraya Acabee -Kokopenance was a real person.