Saskatoon

Residential school survivor who was brutally attacked has died

Marlene Bird, who was brutally beaten and set on fire in 2014, has died in a Prince Albert, Sask., hospital, her family confirms.

Marlene Bird was beaten and set on fire in 2014 attack in Prince Albert, Sask.

Marlene Bird is shown outside court after attacker Leslie Black's court appearance in August. (CBC)

Marlene Bird has died in hospital in Prince Albert, Sask., her family confirms.

Bird's name became known nationally in June 2014 after a vicious assault in a Prince Albert mall parking lot. She had been badly beaten and set on fire. She was partially blinded, and both her legs had to be amputated as a result of her injuries.

Leslie Black, 31, was sentenced in September to 16 years in prison for the attack. He pleaded guilty to attempted murder in April.

A member of Montreal Lake Cree Nation and a residential school survivor, Bird was described as a good-natured and caring person by her family.

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)

She had struggled with alcohol abuse and had been living a transient lifestyle when the attack took place. She was treated in the burn unit of the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton before moving to a Saskatoon hospital.

In court documents, Bird said she lived in constant pain and discomfort. She struggled to find a home, and said she turned to alcohol to cope with the severe trauma she'd experienced.

After being released from the hospital in Saskatoon, she was moved to Prince Albert. She spent time at the YWCA homeless shelter there, then later moved to a seniors home, which could accommodate her wheelchair but charged extremely high monthly rent.

Early in 2015, several advocates teamed up to get Bird into the wheelchair accessible house in Timber Bay, 124 kilometres north of Prince Albert. There she lived with her partner of 15 years, Patrick Lavallee, until she was hospitalized earlier last week.

In conversation with CBC reporter Duncan McCue, Bird said she liked to do sudoku and watch murder mysteries on TV. She read the Bible, and she enjoyed riding on her electric scooter with Lavallee and their dog, Schooner.

Bird, 50, was the mother of two adult children.

'She wanted her story told'

Donna Brooks, chief executive of Prince Albert's YWCA, knew of Marlene before the brutal attack she suffered, and got to know her afterward. The media weren't paying attention to what happened to Marlene in the way Brooks felt they should have.

"I remember saying, "If this was a Caucasian woman in Toronto, it would be national news.'"

A half hour later, the national news media came calling. Brooks' phone began to ring non-stop.

Donna Brooks, CEO of the YWCA in Prince Albert, came to know Marlene Bird after she suffered a brutal attack. Brooks says the community will miss her. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

She later met Marlene at the hospital. It struck Brooks that "she wanted her story told," and pushed to have a publication ban on her name dropped, so people would know what happened.

"She came here [to the YWCA] after, so I got to know her personally, and I got to know Patrick personally as well," said Brooks.

"She was grateful, she was humble, she was thankful, and she was actually quite a bit of fun to be around" — so long as she kept her "demons," as Brook called them, at bay.

Bird struggled with alcohol addiction after her attack, too. She was open about her struggle, and even counseled a friend to try to quit drinking from her hospital bed in her final days, according to her partner, Patrick Lavallee.

Brooks saw Lavallee dote on Marlene, especially after she was attacked. It was a common sight in Prince Albert to see Patrick and Marlene headed to Walmart to panhandle. Sometimes Patrick rode on the back of her motorized scooter, donated after the accident.

He plans to donate the scooter and other items Marlene was gifted after her attack. He says that's what she would have wanted.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and Prince Albert Grand Council's (PAGC) Women's Commission offered their condolences Monday morning.

"Marlene is a true symbol of resiliency, and showed such bravery throughout the years of fighting for her recovery," said FSIN Vice-Chief Kim Jonathan in a news release.

Bird spent months in hospital as she recovered from the attack. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Lived life on her own terms

After her recovery, in recent years, Bird forgave her attacker. She also returned to her old life, splitting her time between the house in Timber Bay and the streets of Prince Albert.

Not everyone understood or agreed with her decisions, but they didn't have to — Bird's life was her own.

"When the community rallied to help Marlene when she came home, we had this big expectation that Marlene is going to get help and sober up, and Marlene's going to live this big, beautiful life, and be a mentor and tell her story," said Brooks.

"And then reality set in."

Patrick Lavallee was almost always with Marlene in the final years of her life.

"All through the night, 24 hours a day … and it's pretty hard," he said, looking down.

"I depend on her, mostly. I like her arguments." Then he laughed.

Patrick Lavallee met Marlene Bird when he 'stole her from a boyfriend' years ago. They shared a life, and a wry sense of humour for over 15 years. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Lavallee has poor eyesight, and said she helped guide him around Prince Albert. He feels a bit lost, now.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. I hope it turns out good."

Bird's community in Prince Albert will also feel the loss, from the friends she sometimes stayed with when visiting the city, to the service providers she got to know at the YWCA.

She changed perspectives, in her own way.

"She taught me to allow people to have their dignity and be who they are. It's not our place to judge," said Brooks. "I will always thank her for that."

With files from CBC’s Duncan McCue, Dan Zareski, and Bridget Yard

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