Police Probe Native Activist's Death

TRURO - Police are investigating what they're calling the suspicious death of aboriginal rights activist Nora Bernard, whose body was found in her Truro home early Thursday morning.

"It's suspicious because we don't have a clear-cut cause yet," Truro Police Chief David MacNeil said Thursday afternoon.

But CBC News reported Ms. Bernard's family, including daughter Leanna MacLeod, believe she died of a heart attack or stroke.

Ms. Bernard, in her early 70s, was instrumental in paving the way for an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 native residential school survivors across Canada to share in a multibillion-dollar compensation deal reached in the last two years with Ottawa and the churches that ran the schools.

Total payouts for widespread abuse and loss of culture could reach $5 billion, due in part to Ms. Bernard's tireless efforts, said Halifax lawyer and friend John McKiggan.

"If it wasn't for Nora and the claim she filed . . . the class-action suit may never have happened," he said in a telephone interview Thursday.

"Nora was a wonderful person with a heart bigger than anything."

Mr. McKiggan, who represents hundreds of Shubenacadie residential school survivors, said Ms. Bernard's claim filed in 1996 was a first because it was made on behalf of every child forced into the schools.

"That had never been done before," he said, although some individual claims had been filed.

"She was told that it couldn't be done. And . . . she wouldn't take no for an answer."

Police received a 911 call to go to Ms. Bernard?' Willow Street home, where they found her body shortly before 3 a.m. The single-storey house, decorated with red ribbons for Christmas, was surrounded by crime-scene tape and guarded by officers throughout the day.

Relatives, friends and community members consoled one another and waited for word on a nearby street and at a seniors' centre, where Truro police and its victim services officer set up a gathering spot.

Ms. MacLeod told reporters that many people will miss her mother, whom she described as a fighter and role model.

"For someone to go up against a government and not back down. It wasn't to be disrespectful. It was to bring the truth about. And that's what she did. She accomplished something a lot of people only wish they could."

Ms. MacLeod said later that her mother had triple bypass surgery and died of a heart attack.

The CBC said Ms. Bernard's son called 911 after finding his mother on the floor. Ms. Mac-Leod said police took him into custody for questioning but released him a few hours later.

Police spent the better part of Thursday preparing documents to get a warrant to search Ms. Bernard's home. They needed to ensure any evidence collected could be used in court if the case became a criminal matter.

Ms. Bernard, director of the Survivors of Shubenacadie Indian Residential School Association, won another recent vic-tory, having been voted back into the Millbrook First Nation during a referendum in March.

She'd lost her native status in 1955 after marrying a non-native. She got that back after changes were made to the Indian Act in 1985. But that did not mean immediate re-entry into the band.

She lived in Truro, a stone's throw from the reserve?s border.

"Thirty-eight years and only 37 feet to go," Ms. Bernard told Chronicle-Herald columnist Peter Duffy earlier this year, shortly after she won reinstatement into the community of her birth.

Lloyd Johnson, a Millbrook band councillor for 32 years, said Ms. Bernard was a determined woman who accomplished so much. "She never lost faith she would be back on the Millbrook reserve," he said, adding she was already planning the move.

"Everyone is in shock."

Another daughter, Natalie Gloade, said "we loved our mother and we were a very close-knit family."

Mr. McKiggan said that after Ms. Bernard filed her claim in 1996, residential school survivors in other provinces filed similar claims and eventually, after many years, the lawyers and their clients started working together.

The result was the huge class-action settlement.

"She'll be remembered for that. She worked tirelessly for survivors. She loved all of them and worked very, very hard on their behalf even at the risk of her own health," the lawyer said.

Mr. McKiggan spoke to Ms. Bernard for the last time about two weeks ago, and on Thursday he spoke to some of her children who said she'd spent Christmas surrounded by family and "had a wonderful day."

Mr. McKiggan recalled a time two years ago when Ms. Bernard had a health scare that landed her in hospital. They joked that she couldn't die then because her work wasn't done.

Survivors have just recently started receiving a first round of compensation cheques, but Mr. McKiggan said the money wasn't important to Ms. Bernard.

"She was doing it so that people would realize what these children went through."

Adding to the confusion surrounding Ms. Bernard?s death were 911 calls from Millbrook-area residents who said they heard gunshots early Thursday morning.

RCMP Sgt. Bill Chisholm of the Millbrook detachment said it's believed the noise was caused by fireworks, not guns.

( cvonkintzel@herald.ca )