Analysis

Marlene Bird, dead at 50, survived vicious assault that led to loss of her legs

Marlene Bird successfully fought to lift a publication ban on her identity, after a man was charged with attempted murder for beating her and setting her on fire in Prince Albert, Sask.

Strong Cree woman refused to be an anonymous victim after man was charged with brutal attack

Marlene Bird was admitted this week to hospital in Prince Albert, Sask., suffering from failing liver and kidneys. (Ryan Pilon/CBC)

It's possible few would know Marlene Bird's name, if not for her steadfast refusal to become a faceless statistic.

She did not want to be known only as that "homeless Indigenous woman," brutally assaulted and set on fire in Prince Albert, Sask.

Instead, she chose a braver, harder path.

Publication bans that protect the identities of sexual assault victims are the norm in Canadian courts. Bird successfully fought to lift a publication ban on her identity, after a 29-year-old man was charged with attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault against her.

Bird wanted to tell her story. Yes, she was homeless when she was discovered in a downtown Prince Albert parking lot in June 2014. Yes, the Cree woman had been badly beaten and set on fire. Yes, she suffered burns to her entire body — burns so severe, doctors had to amputate her legs.

But, in this country, her story is unfortunately not unusual. Indigenous girls and women are more likely to live in poverty, experience violence and die earlier than other Canadians.

Bird wanted Canadians to know what that looks like.

Her family confirmed Monday she passed away in hospital in Prince Albert. 

The assault made a complete mess of Bird's life. Her struggle to find a home, as she turned to alcohol to cope with the severe trauma she'd experienced, highlighted the lack of social supports for the homeless and vulnerable in Canadian cities.

In her disabled state, her partner Patrick Lavallee became her caregiver. The pair had been a couple, on and off, for 15 years. When together, they laughed a lot, sharing that distinct brand of Indigenous humour that helps a person survive. Lavallee was also homeless in Prince Albert and an alcoholic, but soon after Bird's attack, he resolved to sober up and care for her.

Despite being an unconventional relationship, their love story lasted to the end.

Bird and Patrick Lavallee have been a couple, on and off, for 15 years. Not long after the attack on Bird, Lavallee resolved to sober up and care for her. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Bird came from the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, an hour's drive north of Prince Albert. She struggled with alcohol addiction much of her life, beginning as a youngster who developed a taste for drink after sneaking wine from often-partying parents.

She attended an Indian residential school. Her memories of that time weren't good ones: the constant gnawing hunger in her belly, being harshly punished for helping herself to an apple, and the sexual abuse that she suffered — at the hands of students.

Struggled with abusive partner

Relatives eventually found her a spot at a Bible school near the town of Fort Qu'Appelle as a teenager. She enjoyed singing in the choir. Her Christian faith remained steadfast her entire life.

She returned to Prince Albert as a young adult, where she got involved in a long-term relationship, started working at the local casino and became a mother of two.

When her partner grew increasing violent toward her, Bird quit her job. Because she wouldn't leave him, her children were apprehended by child welfare workers.

She endured brutal domestic abuse. One vicious attack left Bird near death with three broken ribs. After she was released from hospital, she left her partner and returned to school to complete her Grade 10 education.

Her troubles with alcohol deepened though, and she eventually quit school. She became a fixture in the street community of Prince Albert. She often stayed with friends and family, couch surfing, sometimes at shelters.

'Never harmed anybody'

She was known for being exceedingly generous. When she received a cash settlement for her residential school experience, she gave much of the money away to other homeless people.

"She was a kind, loving person. Never harmed anybody. Was caring," Edward Henderson, chief of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, told CBC News, after the assault that changed Bird's life forever.

"I don't know why somebody would do that to her."

After struggling to find a home in Prince Albert, Bird and Lavallee eventually found rental housing in the Métis community of Timber Bay, Sask. (Submitted by Patrick Lavallee)

Brutal crime

The attack on Bird prompted marches in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, with many calling for an inquiry to investigate violence against Indigenous women. There was an outpouring of financial support for Bird, including a donated motorized scooter.

One month after the attack, Prince Albert police arrested Leslie Black on charges of attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault. He pleaded guilty, but later recanted parts of an agreed statement of facts and applied to remove his guilty plea. The legal wrangling dragged on for months, then years.

After struggling to find a home in Prince Albert, Bird and Lavallee eventually found rental housing in the Métis community of Timber Bay, 124 kilometres north of Prince Albert.

They were mostly happy with life in the "bush." Bird liked to do sudoku and watch murder mysteries on TV. She read the Bible. She enjoyed riding the dusty roads on her electric scooter with Lavallee and their dog, a little rez mutt with floppy ears named Schooner.

The couple survived on social assistance, so money was tight. She continued to struggle with her alcoholism. What she longed for was a pair of "stick-legs," but doctors told her she needed to be physically stronger to be a candidate for two 9.5 kilogram prosthetics.

In September, Leslie Black pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was handed a 16-year prison sentence. (Facebook)

Criminal proceedings against Black turned into an arduous process. Bird often travelled to the hearings in Prince Albert, a poignant reminder of enduring effects of the attack as she sat in court in her wheelchair, one of her eyes bandaged shut.

She had to face Black in court in August when she presented a victim impact statement in the hope he'd get "dangerous offender" status, a request eventually turned down by the judge.

Finally, this past September, the case came to a close when Black, who had pleaded guilty to attempted murder, was handed a 16-year prison sentence. Black read an apology to Bird in which he said he was "truly sorry."

Outside the court, Bird said she was trying to forgive her attacker.

"I liked that apology," she told media. "It feels good. I don't have to have bad dreams, I hope."

However, Lavallee says she began drinking heavily after the sentencing.

"She forgave him. But she just wanted to get that out of her mind," he said. "Drink hard and not think about it."

This week, Bird was admitted to hospital in Prince Albert, her liver and kidneys failing.

"She's a strong woman," says her cousin Roberta Ross.. "Loving, caring … she'd want the people who cared and supported her to all know that she's a fighter. She is a person who wouldn't give up."

Bird was 50 years old. She is survived by two adult daughters.

Graphic journalist Dan Archer joined the crew from CBC The National to look at the circumstances that contributed to Bird's attack and her struggle to recover. (Dan Archer/CBC)

Violence against Indigenous women

When Bird was attacked, calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women were not on the federal government's radar. Three years later, under a different government, an inquiry is underway.

When the inquiry was first announced, Bird hadn't heard anything about it.

After a long silence, she asked: "What will they talk about?"

Though plagued by controversy, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls doggedly continues to examine hundreds of cases of the missing and the murdered, tragedies that stretch back decades. The inquiry has also pledged to investigate the underlying causes of so much violence suffered by Indigenous women.

But, most importantly, what will the inquiry do to prevent more stories like Bird's?

Bird was a resilient woman. Let's hope for a future where women like her can look forward to more than merely surviving.

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.