Marlene Bird, who lost her legs after attack, finally has a home

Marlene Bird, who has had trouble finding appropriate housing in Prince Albert, Sask., since losing both her legs after a violent attack last summer, has finally found a home.

Woman who was beaten and set on fire moves to wheelchair-accessible house in Métis community with partner

Marlene Bird: Aboriginal woman's story of struggle and survival

9 years ago
Duration 18:43
Marlene Bird was beaten, assaulted and set on fire six months ago. Duncan McCue shares her heart wrenching story of struggle and survival.

Marlene Bird, who has had trouble finding appropriate housing in Prince Albert, Sask., since losing both her legs after a violent attack last summer, has finally found a home.

The Cree woman and her partner, Patrick Lavallee, recently moved into a three-bedroom house in the Métis community of Timber Bay, a 90-minute drive north of Prince Albert. The couple had been unable to find appropriate housing since Bird was released from hospital last fall.

The 47-year-old woman was homeless when she was discovered in a downtown Prince Albert parking lot last June. She'd been badly beaten and set on fire. She suffered severe burns to her body and both her legs had to be amputated.

Leslie Black, 29, was charged a month later with attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault in connection with the attack. Black has yet to appear in court to enter a plea. Bird asked the court to lift the standard publication ban on her name. The ban is intended to protect victims in cases of sexual assault.

"I wanted to show him [Black] what he did to me," says Bird. "That's all I want to say to him. Why would you do that to a woman? That's where you come from, a woman. Why would you want to try to kill me?"

Difficult recovery

Recovery has been difficult for Bird. After being released from a Saskatoon hospital, she was moved to Prince Albert in a taxi. She landed at the YWCA homeless shelter, with nothing but her belongings, a wheelchair and a donated electric scooter.

She started drinking again, which she says is her way of coping with depression.

"I don't mean to have self-pity, but I miss my legs," says Bird, a survivor of residential school sexual abuse and domestic abuse at the hands of a former partner. "I hate depending on other people, but I have to now."

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's alcoholism made it a challenge to find housing. She and Lavallee were living unhappily in a seniors' home, which could accommodate her wheelchair but charged extremely high monthly rent.

"Her normal was ripped away from her," says Donna Brooks, executive director of the Prince Albert YWCA. "She was able to survive that life for 47 years. But because of her disabilities, her ability to survive that lifestyle has now been ripped away from her."

A bright spot in Bird's efforts to heal has been the support of Lavallee. The pair have been a couple, on and off, for 15 years. 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.

"If it wasn't for Marlene, I'd still be drinking. I'd be on the streets," he says. "That's why I decided to quit drinking, because I can't take care of Marlene and the bottle at the same time, eh?"

Unwelcome spotlight for Prince Albert

Following the attack, marches were held in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, calling on federal and provincial governments to do more to tackle violence against aboriginal women. Bird's vulnerability also shone an unwelcome spotlight on the problems of alcohol abuse and homelessness facing Prince Albert.

A recent study of alcohol consumption in the city found residents spent $1,249 per person on alcohol in 2011, almost twice the provincial average. Arrests for public intoxication between 2009-12 consumed over $2.5 million of the Prince Albert police service's budget.

Talks are ongoing about launching a regional alcohol strategy, but many Prince Albert service providers, police included, say the alcohol problem is exacerbated by homelessness.

"If you don't have a home or shelter, how are you able to truly get hold of your addiction and get on the right path?" asks Const. Lisa Simonson, a Prince Albert police officer who often works to connect chronic alcoholics with housing and health providers.

Bird's new home

Several advocates teamed up to get Bird a house.

Marlene Bird and her partner Patrick Lavallee recently moved into a 3-bedroom house in the Metis community of Timber Bay. (Courtesy of Marlene Bird)
"I love this place," says Bird, though she and Lavallee feel a bit isolated in Timber Bay because they have no vehicle to visit family or travel to medical appointments.

Full health-care services aren't available locally, so Bird needs to find rides to Prince Albert and Saskatoon. Transportation is proving difficult, and her electric scooter is still in Prince Albert.

The couple's home in Timber Bay is a social housing rental. Retrofits to make it wheelchair accessible were paid for from the trust fund set up to manage donations for Bird's care

Tune in to The National tonight to watch Duncan McCue's feature documentary, including animation by graphic journalist Dan Archer.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.