On July 20, 2013, Billy Joe Laboucan, chief of Alberta’s Lubicon Lake Band took out his hearing aid for the night and went to sleep. In the early hours of the next morning, unable to hear his phone ringing, his eldest daughter, Charity Laboucan, drove over to his place to wake him up, breaking news that no parent ever wants to hear.

His youngest daughter, Bella Laboucan-McLean, had been found dead.

Twenty-five year old Bella Laboucan-McLean was living in Toronto, Ont. when her body was found at the bottom of a downtown high-rise condo. She had fallen 31 stories to her death. Her body was found just before 5 a.m. Twenty-four hours later her family was notified 3,700 km away in northern Alberta.

“We were devastated, we are still devastated,” says Billy Joe Laboucan.

The Toronto police quickly called Bella Laboucan-McLean’s death a suicide. After the police spoke with Bella Laboucan-McLean’s family, her cause of death was changed to “suspicious.”

Bella Laboucan-McLean as a child with her father Billy Joe Laboucan. Photo courtesy of the Laboucan Family.

Bella Laboucan-McLean had only just recently graduated from Humber College with a diploma in Fashion Arts and spoke of furthering her studies outside of Canada.

“She had everything to live for,” says her father.

Bella Laboucan-McLean’s story is only one of many among Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Canadian government launches national inquiry into MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women)

Aboriginal people have called for a national inquiry for years. The previous Conservative government resisted, but the new Liberal government announced the inquiry as one of its first acts of business.

Pre-inquiry hearings were held this winter in Alberta. The Laboucan family attended one this past February to offer their recommendations.

In 2011, Bella Laboucan-McLean participated in a Sisters in Spirit walk for missing and murdered indigenous women, she would later become a part of the statistics she was trying to raise awareness about. Photo courtesy of the Laboucan family.

Charity Laboucan, Bella Laboucan-McLean’s half-sister, says while attending the meetings she was able to hear other stories of missing women and unsolved murders, stories similar to her sister’s.

“There are girls out there who are wondering where their sisters are and they’re never going to know,” explains Charity Laboucan.

As for her sister, she believes the best way to honour her is to live her life in the best possible way and to give back to her community as much as she can.

“If she was here with me right now, she would not want me to be angry and grieving the whole time,” says Charity Laboucan.

Stereotyping murdered Aboriginal women

After Bella Laboucan-McLean’s death, Charity Laboucan would often be asked if Bella Laboucan-McLean lived a high-risk lifestyle, a label missing and murdered Aboriginal women tend to be painted with.

“What relevance does that have? [. . .] Even if my sister had been a raging, super popular prostitute who slept with a thousand guys a day, does that still mean she deserved to be killed anymore than anybody else does,” says Charity Laboucan angrily while wiping away tears.

Those close to Bella Laboucan-McLean say she did not lead a high-risk lifestyle and was the opposite of such a stereotype.

“Just because she was from Sturgeon [it] didn’t mean she didn’t have the whole world open to her,” says Charity Laboucan.

Growing up in Edmonton

Bella Laboucan-McLean spent her childhood in Sturgeon Lake First Nation, a reservation located 100 km east of Grande Prairie, Alta.

When she became a teenager, along with her brother and mother, she moved to Edmonton.

It was in Edmonton – during Bella Laboucan-McLean’s teenage years- that Charity Laboucan, who has a different mother, got to spend more time with her sister.

Earlier in her life, Bella Laboucan-McLean was still figuring out who she was and where she belonged in the world, explains Charity Laboucan.

“This one time we were driving along and my partner and I picked up Bella. She sat in the back, and asked for the radio to be turned up,” says Charity Laboucan. “And Fergie’s My Humps was playing on the radio and all of a sudden she is singing along saying ‘my lovely lady lumps.’”

A young Bella Laboucan-McLean with her eldest sister Charity Laboucan. Photo courtesy of the Laboucan family.

“I looked over at my partner, and I was like ‘oh my god, she’s 14 and she’s singing about her [sic]’.”

Being her big sister, Charity Laboucan was caught between telling Bella Laboucan-McLean not to sing about her lovely lady lumps or to simply laugh. “I just sat there with this great big smile on my face,” she says.

Between the two sisters, there is an age gap of 15 years, with their other two sisters Melina and Maria Laboucan-Massimo in between them. The youngest sibling is a brother named Billy Joe Laboucan-McLean.

Living in Edmonton

While living in Alberta’s capital, Bella Laboucan-McLean became friends with people from different cultures and she enjoyed trying out different kinds of exotic foods.

“She got to know other people’s views and how they looked at the world,” says Charity Laboucan.

At the age of 18, she graduated in 2006 at Edmonton’s Blessed Oscar Romero High School. She later went to Concordia and then to the University of Alberta for two years, where she worked at Smart Set and met a friend, Deka Boulaleh.

She remembers Bella Laboucan-McLean as ambitious, outgoing and friendly, and how she would stay positive no matter what she was going through.

“She loved fashion and we always had that in common,” says Boulaleh.“She was full of life and full of joy.”

Finding her passion

According to Charity Laboucan, while Bella Laboucan-McLean studied at the U of A, she had still not decided on what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, until Bella Laboucan-McLean– along with her sister Maria Laboucan-Massimo — attended a native’s artisans course in Lac La Biche, Alta.

Being naturally artistic, the two sisters began discussing how they could incorporate Aboriginal artistry traditional styles and contemporary styles together.

This sparked Bella Laboucan-McLean’s interest in clothing and fashion, and so she began to look around for what she could do.

“I think she finally started to realize that she didn’t have to stay in Alberta or go to school in Edmonton,” says Charity Laboucan.

Moving to the big city

“It was so good when she finally found what her passion was. She found what she wanted to do. It’s like she opened up and started to blossom,” says Charity Laboucan.

Bella Laboucan-McLean had always enjoyed experimenting with different outfits, clothing and makeup, but while living in Toronto, Charity Laboucan says her style and look took on a different kind of a quality.

Bella Laboucan-McLean was visibly changing and maturing into a beautiful young woman.

“She was turning into a fashionista, into a glamour model [. . .] she was starting to lose her baby fat and you could totally see her cheekbones come out. It was amazing.”

In the spring of 2013, she graduated from Humber College with a diploma in Fashion Arts.

Bella Laboucan-McLean with Toronto’s Humber College President, Chris Whittaker (left). Photo courtesy of the Laboucan family.

Last visit to Alberta

That same spring, Bella Laboucan-McLean came back to visit family in Peace River, Alta. Charity Laboucan decided to spend the night with her.

“That one-day sleepover turned into a four-night sleepover. When she first came back we had a Breaking Bad marathon,” remembers Charity Laboucan. “While we were binge watching Breaking Bad, we had a little bit of sleep then we would go right back to it.”

Reflecting on that last time she saw Bella Laboucan-McLean, Charity Laboucan now says, “I could never finish Breaking Bad after that, I still haven’t watched the ending.”

Media coverage of MMIW

Media coverage of missing and murdered indigenous women tends to highlight high-risk lifestyles like the sex trade or substance abuse as being one of the reasons Aboriginal women are four times more likely to be murdered or go missing than non-Aboriginal Canadian women. However, Bella Laboucan-McLean’s story shows this isn’t the case.

Bella Laboucan-McLean didn’t live a high-risk lifestyle. She had a home. She had a promising career ahead of her. And yet, she still lost her life.

Today, more than three years later, Bella Laboucan-McLean’s death still remains unsolved. The people who were at the apartment the night she fell from the balcony have not come forward to say what happened to Bella Laboucan-McLean.

“What can you do to make people tell the truth? Somebody out there knows what happened to my sister and they’re not telling because they’re trying to protect themselves,” says Charity Laboucan.

Although she struggles with the anger of unanswered questions, Charity Laboucan says even if she knew what happened it would still not bring her sister back.

Mihkowapikwani, Bella Laboucan-McLean’s Cree name, means Red Flower. Photo courtesy of the Laboucan family.

“My sister was so precious. I mean, everybody’s sister is precious, I’m not trying to say nobody else’s is but she was my baby sister, you know.”

Bella Laboucan-McLean’s case remains open and the Toronto police continue to ask the public for information that could crack the case.

nauger@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this story is Bigoa Machar and can be contacted at bmachar@cjournal.ca