It was supposed to be a fun activity to top off a sleepover.
On December 27, a group of cousins traveled to Mooney’s Bay, a neighborhood in Ottawa, to go sledding.
Eleven-year-old Josée Assal was mad with impatience. She had moved to the national capital with her parents and two older siblings from Lebanon six months earlier and was captivated by the winter.
A few weeks earlier, the girl had danced outside after seeing her first snowfall, and now she was going sledding for the first time.
But the event ended in tragedy. At approximately 2:50 p.m. that day, paramedics responded to a sledding accident on Mooney’s Bay Hill. Josée was transported to CHEO’s pediatric hospital, where she died of her injuries.
Although the incident was reported at the time, CBC News learned more about what happened.
That day, Josée’s aunt worries about the amount of ice coming down the center of the hill and asks the children to take a smoother path that winds in a wide “C” on the side of the Rideau River.
According to the family, a cousin jumped on the front of the plastic slide. Josée’s brother, Jules, 14, climbed next, followed by Josée at the back, who gripped Jules’s waist.
Halfway, the sled turned 180 degrees and continued backward on the grooved curve, rushing towards a cluster of metal sign posts.
Josée’s mother, Marie-Lou El-Kada, says her daughter’s spine was severed on impact with one of these messages.
El-Kada was in a pharmacy to receive her COVID-19 reminder when she learned of her daughter’s accident.
She said that immediately after hitting the post, Josée told her brother that she couldn’t feel his legs. According to El-Kada, Josée told Jules: “I don’t want to continue my paralyzed life”, and he hugged her and held her until the ambulance arrived.
El-Kada said that Josée also asked her sister to help her, “but her sister cannot help her – only kiss her”.
Josée’s father, Joseph Assal, received the emergency call at the Walmart in Gatineau, Quebec, where he works. He had such a bad feeling that he was reluctant to find out what had happened.
“I don’t need to know what’s going to happen. I drive very slowly, not like my usual driving routine. I stop at every amber light… to slow down [to find out] the news, ”Assal said.
After closing the hill to investigate, police said no criminal charges would be laid.
A week after the accident, there is a single sign at the top of the hill in Mooney’s Bay, which reads, “Hill closed. No slipping. Extreme danger. The City of Ottawa accepts no responsibility for any related risks or injuries.
The sign was actually erected in 2017, but the policy written on the sign was rarely enforced. Family lawyer Elie Labaky says there were at least 50 sleds on the hill at Mooney’s Bay at the time of Josée’s death.
In a statement, the City of Ottawa said it was aware of at least two serious injuries before the hill was closed in 2017, as well as several minor injuries.
“The safety and security of everyone is the city’s top priority and it takes all incidents where an accident occurs seriously,” a spokesperson said in an email.
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Photos seen by CBC News taken just before Josée’s death show a cluster of three signs near a trail that tell the public what to put in recycling and organics bins. Labaky says the children’s sled crashed into a sign indicating where to put dog droppings and organic waste.
The city put the signs in place last summer. The day after the fatal accident, workers used a backhoe to remove the metal posts.
Giant electric notice boards at the entrance to the park now warn that sledding is not allowed and wooden barricades block access to the parking lot.
The day after Josée died, municipal officials turned 70 people away from the hill. Although a city officer has been stationed in the park for 11 days to ensure compliance, Riley Brockington, councilor for the Mooney’s Bay area, says permanent closure of the hill to sleds is not a solution.
He says the city used landfill material to build the hill decades ago and intended it for recreational use all year round. Even though Mooney’s Bay is an “unlicensed” toboggan hill, Brockington says it’s one of the city’s most popular places for sledding.
“I think it should be a toboggan run. It’s been used that way for years and will continue to be. You can’t put a padlock around the hill,” he said.
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Brockington says the city should maintain the hill and use a red, yellow and green flag system to indicate slope conditions to the public. Brockington says the slope of the hill may also need to be flattened. City staff will discuss other security measures next week.
Near where Josée died, a makeshift memorial of yellow flowers and rainbow-colored toys surrounds another pole, acting as a tragic deterrent.
When asked how his daughter was, El-Kada was at a loss for words. She explains by quoting her daughter’s 5th grade teacher.
“[Josée] fits very easily in school and has so many friends here… She helps all the children in the class and gives joy to everyone. She always wants success, ”El-Kada said, reading the teacher’s email.
The child loved music, sport
Joseph Assal gathered his daughter’s treasures to explain himself further. Proof of Josée’s love for music, he takes out his violin. He highlighted an indoor hockey trophy and first place cross country ribbon as proof of his athletic ability.
Then he clung to the words in his daughter’s little red journal. “I give thanks to God every day. Because when I wake up in the morning I have a good family and good health,” he read.
The family moved from Beirut to Gatineau last June so El-Kada could complete his three-year Executive MBA program at the University of Quebec in Outaouais.
Labaky, the family’s lawyer, says the Assals have received support from their church, the Maronite Catholic St. Charbel, and that strangers on both sides of the river have offered to help.
Assal says his daughter has always been a generous person. While they were still in Lebanon, Josée donated her hair to a cancer center. Before she died, she had told her parents that she wanted to donate her organs. Since his death, his eyes have restored sight to two patients.
On Thursday, El-Kada will bury his youngest daughter. She never imagined that one of her children would die participating in a “common and fun” Canadian activity, but recognizes that she must stay strong to take care of her family.
“I have to move on. I have two [other children] … They have the right to continue their life in a good family of four instead of five. But my heart is broken. “