Della Duquette will never forget her younger sister’s dying words:
“Go! Sis, it’s OK, I’m going to die.”
It was an order for Duquette to run for her life, she said, as her sister’s estranged husband pointed a rifle at them Monday afternoon in a campground in Meadow Lake, Sask.
“He shot her right in front of me,” Duquette said. “I heard her words telling me to go, so I ran, hoping he wouldn’t shoot me in the back.”
Duqette’s sister, Charlene Graham, a 34-year-old teacher and mother of two from the nearby Flying Dust First Nation, died outside a camper-trailer in the small city of just over 5,000, about 300 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
Charlene’s estranged husband, Delane Graham, 34, from Thunderchild First Nation, south of Meadow Lake, had been living in the campground since the couple split about a month ago. He was found dead inside the same camper-trailer, in what RCMP have described as a homicide-suicide.
In a news release Tuesday, Meadow Lake RCMP described the scene as a domestic incident, saying a 34-year-old man took his own life. They said a 34-year-old woman was found dead outside a camper-trailer when police arrived. A third person, a woman, received minor injuries.
Duquette had rushed to the campground that day to try to save her sister’s life. Charlene’s family says she was trying to leave an abusive relationship. It’s a period of time that is well-documented as being the highest risk for domestic homicide.
They say they are sharing their family’s tragic story to drive home that domestic violence can often turn deadly — and that no one should assume it won’t.
‘She lost her light’
Charlene and Delane started dating right out of high school. Later, they both graduated with teaching degrees and started a family. They had two children.
Charlene’s older sister, Roxanne Aubichon, and her mother, Mary Morin, said Delane began to isolate her from her family, control her movements and manipulate her emotionally.
“She was always so vibrant and happy and healthy. When he started abusing her, she just wasn’t the same anymore. She lost her light,” said Aubichon.
The family says Charlene had tried to leave Delane several times over their 16 years together but would always be pulled back to him.
The couple separated about a month ago. Charlene stayed in her house on Flying Dust First Nation, her home community, and Delane moving into a camper in Meadow Lake campground.
When Charlene started dating someone, her sister predicted trouble.
“She looked so happy. And then I looked at my husband and I said, ‘You know, Delane will never let her be happy. He’s obsessed with her. He’s crazy…. I just had a bad feeling,” Aubichon said.
A call for help
Della Duquette visited her sister Sunday. Charlene told her that Delane was using cocaine and crystal meth and threatening to shoot her and her family if she truly left him.
“She said, ‘Sister, if I ever don’t answer my phone … please come find me because he has me,'” Duquette recalls Charlene telling her.
The next day, Charlene started a new job at the on-reserve elementary school. She came to work that morning, but when her family couldn’t reach her or find her after lunch they began to panic. Her mother called the RCMP and told police: “I fear for my daughter’s life right now.”
Meadow Lake RCMP confirmed they received a request around 2:10 p.m. for a wellness check. RCMP said officers were making inquiries related to this request when the gunshot reports came in.
Duquette wasn’t satisfied with the police’s plan to check Charlene’s house and school, so she rushed over to the campground to search for her sister herself. The family can only speculate that Delane used force or threats to get Charlene to the campground that day.
A sister dies, another escapes
When Duquette arrived, at first she believed Delane was punching her sister so she tackled him and held him on the ground, she said. That’s when she discovered he had a knife and had been stabbing Charlene.
“I was yelling for help and there are so many campers around and I’m like, ‘Why isn’t anyone coming to help?’ Maybe she could have survived from the stab wounds.”
Then, she said, Delane stabbed her in the hand and she released him.
“Then I went back to [Charlene], and I said, ‘Sister, are you okay?'”
That’s when Charlene ordered her to “Go!”
At that point, Duquette said, Delane came toward them with a gun and shot her sister.
“I just wanted to go hold her, and he looked at me and pointed that gun at me and shook his head. He said, ‘Get the f–k out of here,'” she said.
‘There’s a way out’
Charlene’s family says they weren’t able to save her life, but hope sharing her story will save others. They will remember her as a smart, funny woman who loved to sing karaoke and always put others first.
“This is reality. It happens to a lot of women,” said Charlene’s mother. “We want to help other women to recognize the signs of an abusive relationship.”
Charlene’s sister, Roxanne Aubichon, believes her sister could have been helped by her family, police, and community agencies if she had reached out to them — just as Aubichon did when she left an abusive marriage — but she understands how daunting it can be for women who are broken or beaten down to ask for help.
“Your family loves you and your family wants to help you if you are stuck in a situation. There’s a way out,” she said.
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