It was supposed to be a fun activity to cap off a holiday sleepover party.
On Dec. 27, a group of cousins headed to Mooney’s Bay, a neighbourhood in Ottawa, to go tobogganing.
Eleven-year-old Josée Assal was giddy with anticipation. She had moved to the nation’s capital with her parents and two older siblings from Lebanon six months earlier and was enthralled by 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. Around 2:50 p.m. that day, paramedics responded to a tobogganing accident at the Mooney’s Bay hill. Josée was transported to the pediatric hospital CHEO, where she died from her injuries.
While the incident was reported at the time, CBC News has learned more about what happened.
That day, Josée’s aunt worried about the amount of ice sloping down the centre of the hill, and asked the children to take a gentler path that curved in a wide “C” on the side facing the Rideau River.
According to the family, a cousin hopped on the front of the plastic toboggan. Josée’s brother Jules, 14, climbed on next, followed by Josée at the back, who clutched Jules’s waist.
Halfway down, the sled turned 180 degrees and continued backward on the grooved curve, hurtling toward a cluster of metal sign posts.
Josée’s mother, Marie-Lou El-Kada, says her daughter’s spine was severed in the impact with one of those posts.
El-Kada was at a pharmacy getting her COVID-19 booster shot when she learned of her daughter’s accident.
She said that immediately after hitting the post, Josée told her brother she couldn’t feel her legs. According to El-Kada, Josée told Jules, “I don’t want to continue my life paralyzed,” and he hugged and held her until the ambulance came.
El-Kada said Josée also asked her sister to help her, “but her sister can’t help her — only kiss her.”
Josée’s father, Joseph Assal, received the emergency call at the Walmart in Gatineau, Que., where he works. He had such a bad feeling about it that he was reluctant to learn what happened.
“I don’t need to know what is coming. I drive very slowly, not as my usual driving routine. I stop at every orange light… to make it slower [to find out] the news,” said Assal.
After closing the hill to investigate, police say no criminal charges will be laid.
A week after the accident, there is a lone sign at the top of the Mooney’s Bay hill, which reads: “Hill closed. No sliding. Extreme Danger. The City of Ottawa does not accept responsibility for related risks or injury.”
The sign was actually erected in 2017, but the policy written on the sign was rarely enforced. The family’s lawyer, Elie Labaky, says there were at least 50 sledders on the Mooney’s Bay hill around the time of Josée’s death.
In a statement, the City of Ottawa said it was aware of at least two serious injuries prior to the hill’s closing in 2017, as well as multiple minor injuries.
“The safety and security of all is the city’s top priority and it takes all incidents where an accident occurs seriously,” a spokesperson said in an email.
Posts have been removed
Photos seen by CBC News taken just before Josée’s death show a cluster of three signs near a footpath that tell the public what to put in recycling and organic bins. Labaky says the children’s sled slammed into a sign showing where to put dog excrement and organic waste.
The city put the signs up this past summer. The day after the fatal accident, workers used a backhoe to pull out the metal posts.
Giant electric billboards 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’s death, bylaw officers turned away 70 people from the hill. Although a bylaw officer has been stationed at the park for the past 11 days to ensure compliance, Riley Brockington, the councillor for the Mooney’s Bay area, says closing the hill permanently to sledders isn’t a solution.
He says the city used landfill materials to build the hill decades ago and intended it for year-round recreational use. Even though Mooney’s Bay is an “unsanctioned” toboggan hill, Brockington says it’s one of the city’s most popular spots for sledding.
“I think it should be a toboggan hill. It has been used that way for years and will continue to be used like that. You can’t put a padlock around the hill,” he said.
WATCH | Parents of 11-year-old who died tobogganing describe happy, positive girl
Brockington says the city should maintain the hill and use a coloured flag system of red, yellow and green to indicate slope conditions to the public. Brockington says the hill’s gradient may also have to be flattened. City staff will discuss more safety measures next week.
Near where Josée died, a makeshift memorial made up of yellow flowers and rainbow-coloured toys surrounds another post, acting as a tragic deterrent.
When asked what her daughter was like, El-Kada is at a loss for words. She explains by quoting her daughter’s Grade 5 teacher.
“[Josée] integrated very easily in school and has so many friends here… She helps all the children in class and gives joy to everybody. She always wants success,” El-Kada said, reading from the teacher’s email.
Child loved music, sports
Joseph Assal collected his daughter’s treasures to explain further. As proof of Josée’s love of music, he brought out her violin. He pointed to a floor hockey trophy and a first-place ribbon for cross-country as evidence of her athletic ability.
Then he clung to the words in his daughter’s small red diary. “I give thanks to God everyday. Because when I wake up in the morning I have a good family and good health,” he read.
The family moved to Gatineau from Beirut last June so El-Kada could complete her three-year executive MBA program at the Université du Quebec en Outaouais.
Labaky, the family’s lawyer, says the Assals have received support from their church, St. Charbel Maronite Catholic, and that strangers from both sides of the river have offered their help.
Assal says his daughter was always a giving person. When they were still in Lebanon, Josée donated her hair to a cancer centre. Before she died, she had told her parents that she wanted to donate her organs. Since her death, her eyes have provided sight to two patients.
On Thursday, El-Kada will bury her youngest daughter. She never imagined one of her children would die while participating in a “common and fun” Canadian activity, but acknowledges she must stay strong to care for her family.
“I have to move on. I have two [other children] … they have the right to continue their life with a good family of four instead of five. But my heart is broken.”