‘A child is so innocent’: Candlelight vigil held for 11-year-old girl in Ontario Amber Alert

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Community members left grief-stricken by the death of an 11-year-old Brampton, Ont., girl gathered at a park near the child’s school to light candles, lay flowers and show support for the girl’s family at a vigil Saturday evening.

About 200 people gathered at Meadowvale Village Green park in neighbouring Mississauga at 6 p.m., most of them holding candles to place at a growing memorial for Riya Rajkumar, who was found dead in her father’s basement apartment on her birthday this week. 

Some of Riya’s family members attended the vigil, but did not address the crowd.

The group held a moment of silence and, as more people arrived and the sky grew darker, the display of candles grew in front of a pile of flowers and teddy bears.

A woman who knows Riya’s mother planned the candlelight vigil. Amrita Naipaul posted details about the event on her social media accounts.

Members of the community gather at a candlelight vigil in Mississauga on Saturday night for Riya Rajkumar. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

« Many people have messaged asking how you can help Riya’s family during this tragic time. As a community, this loss has been felt by all, » she wrote on Instagram and Facebook.

« There are so many people who have been hurting from this angel’s loss, and no one needs our prayer and love more than Riya’s family at this time, » she continued. 

In an interview on Saturday before the vigil, Naipaul said she spoke briefly with Riya’s mother on the phone on Friday evening. 

« I just wanted to make sure out of respect that she was aware of what we were trying to do before we made any arrangements or made any plans, » she told CBC News Network.

« She’s actually the one who suggested that we do it nearby the school, » Naipaul explained, referring to Meadowvale Village Public School, where Riya was a Grade 5 student. 

Naipaul said she has heard from people across Canada, and even from some who live outside the country. 

« There have been many strangers who’ve reached out to me and said, ‘If you get a chance to talk to [Riya’s mother] just let her know that she’s very loved, and she has so much support,' » she continued. 

Naipaul planned to collect donations at the vigil that will be used to help pay for Riya’s funeral. A separate online fund established by the group Neighbourhood Watch Brampton has already raised some $21,000 for Riya’s family.

« I think everybody kind of shares the same sentiment that a child is so innocent and so pure, and a parent is supposed to — especially a father — is supposed to be protective of their child. And to think about what that child went through is just hard for everyone, » she said.

‘Honour a young life’

Rajkumar will also be remembered at a formal memorial on Tuesday night in Brampton, the city about 30 kilometres northwest of Toronto. 

Brampton Coun. Rowena Santos is helping to organize the vigil, which is set to take place at Garden Square from 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET. 

« Our community is grieving the tragic death of Riya Rajkumar and this is a time to come together in solidarity and remember and honour a young life, » said a notice posted to the city’s website.

« All members of the public are welcome to attend. »

Riya’s father, Roopesh Rajkumar, is facing a charge of first-degree murder in her death. Rajkumar, 41, picked his daughter up at a Mississauga gas station on Thursday afternoon to take her out for her birthday. When he did not return the young girl to her mother at an agreed upon time later that evening, she went to Peel Regional Police for help. 

An Amber Alert was eventually issued around 11 p.m. that night, and was cancelled about an hour later after officers found Riya’s body at an address in Brampton where her father resided.

Rajkumar was arrested by provincial police around the same time while driving north on Highway 11 in Orillia, about 130 kilometres north of Brampton.

Riya was remembered by her classmates and friends as having a vibrant personality and infectious smile.

On Saturday, people continued to stop by the address where Riya was found. The residence is still taped off by police, and officers were going door to door in the area speaking with neighbours.

‘No child deserves this’

A small memorial of flowers and notes of condolences grew in a snowbank outside the home. Family members brought those flowers to Saturday night’s vigil.

« It’s just so sad to hear — an 11-year-old. It could have been my daughter, » said Alexandra Casanova, who brought her children with her so that they could « understand what happened. »

Michael Bettencourt brought his adolescent son with him to pay his respects.

« We are mourning her loss. She was such a young child, and we feel for the family and the community, » he said.

« No child deserves this. »

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Thousands ‘may be eating something cold by candlelight’ on Christmas as B.C. power outage continues

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VANCOUVER—Chief William Seymour of Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Tribes booked five hotel rooms for displaced families and will be attending a funeral on Christmas Eve.

The tragedies that befell the First Nation were echoed throughout much of British Columbia this holiday season following a powerful storm that battered the province on Thursday. Tens of thousands of people have been left without power.

But locals are banding together to make the most of a gloomy situation.

“We are a pretty tight-knit community. If we have the means to help, then we do it. Looking after each other is the way that we are getting by,” Seymour said in a phone interview. “Everybody is praying they’re going to get hydro today. They would love to be home for Christmas Day.”

Heavy rain and 100 km/h winds uprooted hundreds of trees, one of which struck and killed a woman in her early 20s on Thursday morning. Then in the evening, as 16 community members sat by candlelight, one candle tipped over, causing an out-of-control house fire. A falling tree sliced through the living room of another home, which housed 12 people.

As for the rest of the community, “they have no idea what they’re going to do for the holidays,” Seymour said.

“We are looking at families that have to find someplace else to get together. They can’t have their usual turkey dinners, and I don’t know how they’re working that out … They may be eating something cold by candlelight.”

Though the largest First Nations band in B.C. has been hit hard, Seymour said community members with power — just under half of the population of 5,000, he estimates — are opening their doors for people in need of a hot shower, a stove or even filtered water. Roughly 35 households are struggling to access clean water.

But his biggest concern is for elders with mobility issues, given that they’re not expecting power to be back on until the new year. Seymour spent Monday morning phoning around to ensure there’s plenty of dry wood to burn on their wood stoves.

BC Hydro reported there were roughly 20,000 British Columbians without power as of late Monday morning. A large number are on Vancouver Island including the Cowichan Valley and Galiano Island, said Tanya Fish, the Crown corporation’s spokesperson.

Repair crews have been working 24-7 in the face of hundreds of downed power lines and trees. The Ministry of Transportation has been assisting with cleanup.

But the most affected areas will be without power on Christmas Day, Fish noted.

“Customers in these areas have been really amazing. They’re bringing coffee, hot chocolate and food out to crews to show their appreciation,” Fish said.

Meanwhile, on Galiano Island, several residents told StarMetro that their cellphones have been their “life blood.”

When the power went out Thursday, resident Tobi Elliot said, the community naturally stepped up to help one another. She spoke to StarMetro for 10 minutes on her way to deliver drinking water on Sunday as her cellphone dwindled to one per cent battery life and died.

Locals immediately “grabbed their own chainsaws” and started clearing trees from roadways, she explained. Since debit and credit machines were down, people were sharing cash for essentials such as gas. Others were delivering jugs of fuel for those who needed gas. Clean water was also a commodity, as it was completely sold out by Saturday.

Then late Sunday night, six boats came loose from their moorings and proceeded to thrash violently in the water. One Galiano resident, who lives on a houseboat in the harbour, spent the night unhooking boats and fending others off.

“He and other people worked through the night to make sure there was minimal damage to the boats. He saved three, and three were beached,” Elliot said on Monday morning.

The town prepares an annual “spirit feast” on Christmas Day that serves roughly 250 people. But the community hall is located on the south end of the island, without generators or heat. Elliot said the dinner was almost cancelled.

“Everybody’s families are arriving today, and we’ve all been wondering how to cook a turkey dinner when you have no power,” she said.

But organizers and volunteers decided “we need to do it this year, more than ever.” They’ll be serving hot turkey sandwiches, cider, coffee, tea and cookies — all made in a propane-powered commons kitchen.

While speaking to StarMetro by phone Monday morning, Elliot said power was starting to go back on around the town centre. She was hopeful she would get a chance to bake some sockeye salmon, which is thawed completely after more than 72 hours without power.

“I’d already accepted Christmas would be a lot different this year,” she said. “We are potentially cut off from services in cities. You learn to look after yourself and your neighbours.”

BC Hydro will continue to update its website with outage repairs.

Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia

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