The family of Loretta Saunders vowed on Friday that they won’t let her legacy fade from the country’s memory.
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Family members spoke to reporters on Friday for the first time since the 26-year-old woman’s body was found near a New Brunswick highway earlier this week.
“Loretta made a grand point. She hasn’t died in vain,” said sister Delilah Saunders. She said she and her sister both planned to legally change their last name to Terriak, a traditional family name.
“She captured the hearts of the country,” added cousin Lisa White.
After two weeks of searching and despite the tragic ending, the family members said they are thankful Loretta's body was found.
“Not very often are aboriginal people returned and she’s being returned home,” said aunt Barb Coffey. “She’s going home.”
Her family said they’ll continue to fight for missing and murdered aboriginal women, the focus of Saunders’s thesis at Saint Mary’s University.
“We're not the old ones that are going to sit down and be quiet any more,” said brother Edmund Saunders.
“We are going to come looking for our women. We are going to make this an issue that everybody is aware of. No more of our beautiful women goes missing.”
'Heartbreaking' Loretta won't see graduation
The family also said they plan to work together to finish her university thesis.
Darryl Leroux, Saunders's thesis supervisor, told CBC's Mainstreet radio program he remembers the first time he met the keen student last year.
He remembers Saunders was the only student sitting in the front row of the class. Leroux said she asked challenging but respectful questions.
“The kind [of questions] that you really have to ponder, the kind that get you on your heels. Right away I recognized her as someone who was really keen on learning, had an intellectual curiosity that when you’re a teacher you find really — something that you appreciate in students,” said Leroux.
Leroux said he understands why Delilah Saunders and the rest of the family want to pick up Saunders's research where she left off.
“I’m not surprised that for her this is something that needs to be done. You know it’s not like we’ve lost Loretta and that’s it. It’s like we’ve lost Loretta and she’s really inspired both Delilah, her younger sister, and a number of other people to continue with that type of research,” he said.
Leroux said though most students are happy to graduate, it really meant a lot to Saunders.
“Loretta in particular, I think, really seemed very happy to be able to see graduation on the horizon, as it were. It was great to see her enthusiasm and passion for justice for indigenous people,” he said.
“Really, I learned that anything's possible. Just knowing her and knowing the drive and passion that she had just to be at university — the importance that had for her. It’s particularly heartbreaking to know that she won’t see the day to graduate.”
Suspects' case adjourned for 3 weeks
The family gathered at the courthouse Friday as the two people accused of first-degree murder in her death made a short court appearance.
Victoria Henneberry, 28, and Blake Leggette, 25, were charged Thursday. They were already charged with possession of a stolen vehicle after Saunders's car was found in Ontario.
Police believe Saunders was killed on Feb. 13 — the day she disappeared. They also believe she was killed in the apartment unit she was sharing with Leggette and Henneberry.
On Friday, Henneberry opted to remain in the cells at the courthouse and let her lawyer speak for her. Leggette faced a gauntlet of media cameras and a hostile crowd inside the courtroom when he made his appearance.
The matter was put over until March 19 as lawyers build their cases.
As Leggette was led from court, a man shouted “gutless cowards” until he was warned by sheriffs.
Coffey said Saunders’s parents in Labrador expressed concern for the parents of the suspects.
“This is the kind of people that Loretta is. Like her parents.They worry about other people. That’s part of our culture,” she said. “We’re strong.”
An autopsy will be performed on Saunders's body, which was transported to the coroner services office in Saint John.
Police will not say how Saunders was killed, only that it's part of the evidence in the murder case against Leggette and Henneberry.
The Nova Scotia legislature observed a moment of silence in honour of Saunders on Friday.