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Grief stricken family urges teens to be safe

Tora-Lee Williams's mother, Roxanne Burns, remembers a young woman who was always surrounded by friends and never stopped moving. She was always travelling.

Tora-Lee Williams’s mother, Roxanne Burns, remembers a young woman who was always surrounded by friends and never stopped moving.

“She was always travelling. Before she passed on, she was working and saving money to visit a friend in Calgary,” said Burns.

After spending a night with friends at a Halloween party, Williams was found unresponsive in the early hours of Nov. 1, on a front lawn in the Kopper King area of Whitehorse. She was 15.

The tragedy has left her mother and stepfather, Michael Hawkins, struggling to hold onto the memory of who Williams was. Some questions about her death are just too painful to deal with right now. But one will likely haunt Burns forever.

“Why was no one with her that night? She ended up alone.”

Burns and Hawkins say they still don’t know the details of what happened that night. The RCMP haven’t said anything either. Her mother and stepfather fear that Williams’s death could become just another statistic on a government spreadsheet.

“We know nothing will bring her back,” Burns said, through tears. “But she had everything. She had it all and this still happened. It can happen to anyone. I just want teenagers to know that, even if you have it all, be careful. If your friend is intoxicated, don’t leave them behind. If we could just share a little bit about her life and prevent this from happening to someone else’s family, that’s why we’re talking about it.”

Williams was an athlete, a youth mentor, and a proud member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

She volunteered with the youth centre in Haines Junction and took part in a youth conference in Nanaimo, B.C. That, and an exchange trip to Ontario in Grade 6, sparked her love of travelling, something she wanted to pursue after high school.

“She didn’t want to waste any time. She was never still. She lived a lifetime in 15 years, more than your average adult,” said Burns.

Williams was back and forth a lot and moved back to Whitehorse permanently in May, but she always managed to make sure everyone had quality time with her wherever she was, her mother said.

She helped her grandparents with cooking contracts, and was a top-notch stick-gambler for the Ta’an Kwach’an Council and Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

“Whenever she was in town, she would make sure to find time for coffee with me and some of her friends. I remember when I’d be out cutting wood, she would come and help me,” Hawkins recalled.

“Even if it was getting late on us, she would push us a little more to get the job done. She was never a halfway kind of person,” he said.

Having coffee with your stepdad might seem like the last thing a 15-year-old girl would want to do, but Hawkins said that’s just the kind of young woman Williams was.

“Family was always really important to her,” said Hawkins.

When she wasn’t with her family, Williams’s time was consumed with sports and fun, her parents said.

She played volleyball and hockey, and had been hoping to get into archery this winter. In March, she won a silver medal in the Dene Games stick pull at the Arctic Winter Games.

Even when she was chasing athletic goals, her mother said she was always watching out for her friends, always wanting to help.

“At Porter Creek (Williams’s high school) they called her their little rock star.”

It was rare for Williams to be alone. On the night of her death, her mother said Williams had been torn about which Halloween party to go to; so many people had wanted to see her.

Burns, who has struggled with alcoholism and been sober for nine months, said she knew Williams sometimes drank with her friends. She didn’t try to stop it, but she made sure her daughter knew she always had a safe place to go, and that she could always call.

“She was a typical teenager, but I always knew she would call if she had to. She was responsible.”

So responsible that she was often the safety net for her friends, said Burns.

“If they had no place to go, she would bring them home with her. She would call and ask if one friend could stay over, but she usually brought two or three home. She never forgot anyone,” said Burns.

Contact Jesse Winter at