A slain Mi'kmaq activist who is revered for helping win millions in compensation for survivors of Canada's notorious residential schools was remembered yesterday as a compassionate soul and determined fighter for aboriginal rights.
Nora Bernard, 72, who pioneered a class-action suit for thousands of school survivors, died Dec. 27 of multiple stab wounds at her home just outside the Millbrook First Nation in Truro, N.S.
Mourners packed a small Roman Catholic church on the reserve in central Nova Scotia for her funeral.
"She had the heart of a soldier and the soul of an angel," daughter Gail Richardson said in her eulogy.
"She worked hard for justice for all and we must work to honour her by continuing this work."
Millbrook residents were stunned to learn earlier this week that Ms. Bernard's 24-year-old grandson, James Douglas Gloade, had been charged with first-degree murder in her death.
The harsh ending of the native elder's life came in sharp contrast to her compassion, family members said.
Many of those who marched through the slush-covered streets of the reserve to the ceremony wore blue ribbons, symbols of the residential school survivors.
Others wore the purple ribbons of the Sisters in Spirit campaign, which remembers women who have been victims of violence.
The church had room for only 100 people, so an overflow crowd watched a video feed of the service in an adjacent community hall.
Noel Knockwood, a Mi'kmaq elder who attended a residential school, said Ms. Bernard was "a fighter, yet she was also compassionate.
"Many residential school survivors got compensation and we are grateful for that."
Ms. Bernard received her own compensation from the class-action lawsuit just before Christmas after devoting years to helping her neighbours achieve similar payments.
Debbie Paul, 52, one of the last children to graduate from a residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S., said she loved Ms. Bernard because she would patiently listen to stories of her life there.
"That's what I remember. If I was hurting, I could go to her and tell her how I felt. She was a resident survivor. She understood."
Ms. Bernard's violent death has been linked to what police have described as a growing problem with drug abuse in Millbrook and the surrounding area.
Police have suggested Ms. Bernard's attacker was on some sort of drug at the time, but haven't elaborated.
Ms. Paul said drugs are one of the only ways to explain the tragedy in a culture where tradition dictates that grandmothers should be respected by the young.
"They [drugs]change the person. ... It changes your soul. It changes every bit of you," she said.
"This event will bring other families together to start talking about it. When you talk about it, you get angry and mad and say 'we'll put a stop to this.' "
Mi'kmaq Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy attended residential school with Ms. Bernard and her siblings in the 1940s. He said Ms. Bernard broke down the taboos that prevented people from discussing what occurred behind school doors.
"There were children picked up and forced to go to school in Shubenacadie," he recalled. "There's some hard stories, like when our parents came to visit, we couldn't speak to them.
"Eventually we lost our language."