Toronto -- The final straw for Suzanne Graham was the funeral.
For a decade, she felt her sister slipping away, becoming increasingly enmeshed in a controversial religious organization founded on the belief that American slave children are the true descendants of Israel.
But after Andrene Graham was shot dead in a west-end laneway near the Dufferin Mall one week ago, allegedly at the hands of an abusive ex-boyfriend, the Toronto-based Israelite Nation swooped in to begin making funeral arrangements — and that is when her sister had enough.
"They are claiming to be her family, which they are not," Suzanne Graham said in an emotionally charged, exclusive interview with the National Post. "It's like we are being excluded out of my sister's burial. We were kind of excluded out of her life when it came to the religion because it was just so engulfed, it's all-consuming … This is our sister, our family, and it's like they're taking that from us."
Andrene Graham's funeral Friday marked the culmination of a week in which her sister says the family had to "negotiate" with the Israelite Nation for the privilege of sitting by the coffin of the 40-year-old mother of five before she was buried. At a news conference on the high-profile murder, members of the church — including founder Shadrock Porter, who refers to Andrene Graham as his daughter — featured prominently, while the victim's biological family felt pushed aside.
"It's really hurtful to all of us, but especially to my mother," Suzanne Graham said.
She likened the Israelite Nation to a cult, echoing the concerns of one member who said Mr. Porter's orders are followed "no questions asked." That member, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, described the organization as replete with infighting, manipulation and "abuse of power."
The goal of the church, which is dedicated to keeping alive the practices and cultures of the Bible-era Israelites, is "to motivate and to give people some sense of belonging," Mr. Porter said, noting decisions are made by a council, not by unilateral decree. "I am not a Jim Jones," he said.
Asked to comment on the perception that he is nonetheless a charismatic and controlling leader, Mr. Porter responded: "I could understand why people would say that."
Mr. Porter said he successfully moulded Andrene Graham into "a totally different person" over the past decade, and most recently arranged for her to marry Junior Fowler, one of his adopted "sons" from England.
"I arranged that marriage because I wanted her to settle down. I arranged it and she was very happy in this last moment," Mr. Porter said.
Mr. Fowler, who lauded the "family atmosphere" within the Israelite Nation, said he was struggling to come to grips with the tragedy.
"Andrene is the first girl that I've ever loved," Mr. Fowler said in an interview. "Losing her has really taken a chunk out of me."
A spokesman for the Israelite Nation — a registered charity that asks members to donate approximately 10% of their income to fund day-to-day operations — said the group has been hit with "wild accusations" of cult-like behaviour in the past, but dismissed them as meritless.
The organization, which refused a request to disclose its number of active members, highlighted its record of contributing to clothing drives, tutoring programs, community centres and other causes throughout Greater Toronto.
"We certainly would be playing with fire if we had something to hide," spokesman Kirk Anderson said.
Mr. Porter said the Israelite Nation stepped up to make funeral arrangements for Andrene Graham because the victim's will instructed that she be buried in accordance with the religion's practices.
"This is what Andrene wanted. We tried to meet [the family] halfway," Mr. Porter said. He suggests the victim's family members were upset because "her whole life was about worship and singing, her whole life was about dancing, and all of this, and they were not included in all of that."
Suzanne Graham — who says none of her family knew about the engagement, and few even knew of Mr. Fowler's existence — sees it differently, citing yet another symptom of Andrene Graham being "cut off" from the world beyond the church. What haunts her today, one week after the final tragedy, is whether her sister's isolation prevented the family from learning more about the threat she faced from Paul Black, the alleged killer who himself died in a subsequent altercation with police. Police have said there are no other suspects in Ms. Graham's death.
For every decision, before every turn, Andrene Graham turned to Mr. Porter, who filled the void left by their own absentee father, Suzanne Graham said.
"I think my sister was scared; not scared physically from harm or hurt, but afraid of not being accepted, afraid of being abandoned, of being alone," she said. "Even though she knew we were here, that's how bad they had her, that she felt like she had nobody else in the world."