Marlene Bird, who died in hospital in Prince Albert on Monday, will be remembered as “a symbol of resiliency,” forgiveness and dignity, say people who knew her.
Bird, 50, lost both her legs and much of her eyesight after she was viciously attacked and set on fire in a back alley in Prince Albert on June 1, 2014.
She entered hospital on Nov. 20, went into a coma on Wednesday and never regained consciousness after suffering heart, liver and kidney failure, her friend Linda Lavallee said.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) said Bird, a member of Montreal Lake Cree Nation, died “surrounded by family” at Victoria Hospital.
Lavallee said Bird had forgiven Leslie Black, the man who attacked and sexually assaulted her. But she was upset over the 16-year prison term he received in September, and the stress of the case and its outcome affected her health.
Friends saw what was happening to her and convinced her to go to hospital.
Lavallee said Bird, who was a residential school survivor, turned to alcohol to help her cope, but in the month before her death she and her partner, Linda’s brother Patrick Lavallee, resolved to stay sober.
People from across Canada reacted to the attack with donations and cards of support for Bird, raising more than $20,000 that was used to retrofit a house in the hamlet of Timber Bay, about 90 minutes north of Prince Albert, and for rent at a care home while she waited for that home.
The community also came together to replace a scooter that was stolen from Bird’s home in Timber Bay.
Montreal Lake Cree Nation Chief Frank Roberts, a friend of the family, described Bird as an inspiration.
“Despite the challenges that she had, she was still a happy person … she still cared for people. She was a very kind and generous person,” Roberts said.
Bird’s two daughters, both in their 20s, are in Prince Albert. Lavallee said they could not be immediately contacted to let them know about their mother’s death.
Bird’s former sister-in-law, Viola Petrowich-Kurnoff, also reflected on the loss of a good friend.
“Her and I have been through a lot together,” Petrowich-Kurnoff told the Daily Herald.
Petrowich-Kurnoff said Bird was known for her personality, and how friendly she was with everyone.
“She was almost like a sister to me. She was a very loving person. Loving, loyal and honest,” Petrowich-Kurnoff said.
“It’s going to (leave) a big hole in my heart.”
Black pleaded guilty in April to attempted murder in the June 2014 beating, burning and sexual assault. The court was told that after the attack, he walked to a nearby convenience store and bought candy. Black then walked past Bird, who was still on fire, and ignored her.
It was several hours before she was discovered, barely alive, and with burns so severe they exposed her facial bones. One of her feet was attached only by a piece of skin.
The Crown had argued for life in prison and a dangerous offender label for Black, while the defence asked for 15 years.
Before he learned his fate, Black made eye contact with Bird in the courtroom and said he was “truly sorry.” The judge, saying Black’s risk to reoffend could be managed in the community, had decided the previous month not to designate him a dangerous offender.
Bird later said outside court that she thought she “could forgive him.”
“I’m doing my best, because my mom told me to forgive people that do wrong.”
Lavallee said she believes Bird’s legacy will be her ability to forgive.
“If she can forgive someone like that, how hard is it for us to forgive other people? We should be able to make amends with family and friends and even strangers.”
A memorial service was planned for Monday evening in Prince Albert. Bird was to be buried next to her grandmother in the tiny northern Saskatchewan community of Molanosa.
“Our prayers and thoughts are with the family during this extremely difficult time,” said FSIN first vice-chief Kim Jonathan. “Marlene is a true symbol of resiliency, and showed such bravery throughout the years of fighting for her recovery.”
“She was a heroic woman, whose strength inspired many, and we are deeply hurt to hear of her passing,” the Prince Albert Grand Council’s women’s commission commented in a statement. “The loss of Marlene affects us all, and her courage will be admired forever.”
— With files from Evan Radford, Jason Kerr, Betty Ann Adam and the Canadian Press