Police Investigate Death at Bernard's Home

In the 12 years it took for Nora Bernard to win the largest class-action suit in Canadian history, she lived on an old-age pension. But the Halifax lawyer who helped her fight for fellow survivors of the residential school system said she always accepted their collect calls.

"There was many a time when her phone was cut off," recalled John McKiggan. "She would talk through it with them, and help them with their experiences, and help them deal with their pain."

Bernard's upbeat voice could still be heard on her answering machine yesterday evening as Truro police searched the premises, investigating what they are calling a "suspicious death."

Police haven't released the identity of the victim, but family members confirm it is Bernard, who lived on the Millbrook-Truro border.

"We're trying to do everything we can to expedite things and come up with some answers for the family," Truro police Chief David McNeil said.

Bernard's daughter, Leanna MacLeod, told CBC Televsion yesterday that the family does not suspect foul play.

MacLeod's brother, who placed the call to 911 upon finding her body at 2:47 a.m. yesterday, suspected a heart attack or stroke was to blame, she said.

McKiggan refused to comment on the nature of Bernard's death, but said her health had been "touch and go" for the last number of years.

"She wouldn't let things get her down, and I think she made too little of what was going on," he said.

When Bernard, who attended the Shubenacadie residential school for five years, first approached McKiggan in the mid-'90s, he said he was reluctant to take on her case.

The legislation for class-action suits did not exist in Nova Scotia, and the government required survivors to file their claims individually, he said.

But after attending a talking circle, in which survivors shared the horrors of their experiences, he said he "became a convert."

The lawsuit merged with a similar one in Ontario, and others across Canada, culminating in a settlement of upwards of $5 billion, for more than 70,000 survivors.

"I truly believe that if it wasn't for her resistance and her strength, her giving nature, then this would never have happened," McKiggan said.

Upon winning her hard-fought battle last December, The Daily News asked Bernard what kept her going.

"Justice," she said. "I wanted justice for my First Nations people that attended the residential schools - not only down here - throughout Canada." - With files from The Truro Daily News

rmendleson@hfxnews.ca