By IAN BAILEY
Saturday, June 30, 2018
As an advocate against bullying, Suman Virk spoke for years about the harrowing events surrounding the 1997 murder of her 14-yearold daughter, Reena. Public speaking did not come easily to Ms. Virk. "It took a little bit of time," family friend Richard Legg says. "It was such a shock." But eventually it became clear that she was a natural.
After Reena was drowned by other teenagers in the water below a Victoria-area bridge that November night, what sustained Ms. Virk was her remarkable resilience and optimistic nature, Mr. Legg said.
"The hope that she had of things changing for the better - that's what really gave her the courage to speak out and try to make a difference," he said.
Following Suman Virk's own death in Victoria on June 16, many recalled her composure and strength in the face of adversity.
"She was an incredibly quiet person. At first, when you met her, it was easy to think she was in her husband's shadow," says Lynne Van Luven, an editor who spent many hours in the Virks' home working with Ms. Virk's husband, Manjit Virk, on his 2008 book Reena: A Father's Story. "But actually, I think, in some ways she was the stronger of the two."
Ms. Virk died on June 16 after what her family described as an accident. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, she went into medical distress on June 14, was transported to hospital, but died, according to a service statement, "despite intensive medical intervention." The Victoria Times Colonist newspaper reported that Ms. Virk choked while eating in a café. Her airway was blocked for several minutes, causing brain damage and leading to her eventual death. She was 58.
Mr. Virk acknowledged his wife's strength in his book. "Enduring pain and suffering in a dignified way, Suman helped me do the same," he wrote. "She also became the spokesperson for our family by dealing with the media and news reporters and continues to do so. When I was incapacitated by Reena's death, Suman allowed me to grieve without putting undue pressure on me.
"She understood that for some people, dealing with loss takes a long time. I knew she also felt overwhelmed by despair."
During a 1998 appearance on CBC TV, Ms. Virk said her efforts to raise public awareness on bullying "came about gradually" as she realized she did not want Reena to have died in vain.
"As we healed from the grief and got past the pain, it slowly became evident to myself that we have to help the public become aware of the very real problem of teen violence around us."
Ms. Virk said she wanted Reena's murder to be more than just a statistic. She wanted young people who commit violent crimes to see there is a family affected by such crimes, not just the victim.
Del Manak, chief of the Victoria police department, said Ms. Virk and her husband saved lives by speaking out against bullying. Adopting such a high profile is uncommon among the families of murder victims, he said.
"It takes a tremendous amount of commitment and inner strength and courage to step up and do it," he said in an interview. "She was a community leader. She was a community advocate. What she did is an inspiration to all of us."
The Virks were the catalyst for anti-bullying programs enacted by the government of British Columbia, according to Education Minister Rob Fleming.
"The tragic death of a daughter would have understandably led most people to be sorrowful and intensely private for the remainder of their lives," Mr. Fleming said in a statement.
"In Suman's case, she and her husband instead pioneered a discussion about the potentially deadly consequences of bullying in our school system, and literally talked to tens of thousands of kids, educators, administrators and law-enforcement officials about how we can learn to treat one another with respect and kindness."
In 2009, the Virks received the provincial Anthony J. Hulme Award of Distinction, in honour of their extraordinary contributions to crime prevention and community safety.
An official statement at the time noted that they had worked to spread the message that bullying can only end if teens speak out before things get out of control.
Suman Bala Pallan was born in Victoria on Nov.
23, 1959, the daughter of Tarsem and Mukand Pallan, and grew up as one of five children in the family.
After graduating from Victoria High School in 1978, she worked for the provincial government. The following year, when she first met Manjit, she had a 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift job as a keypunch operator.
Manjit Virk, who was from India, spent time in Victoria visiting his older sister, Amarjit. He wrote in his book that Amarjit liked the idea of having him close by. "My sister naturally thought marrying me to someone in the community would cement my stay in Canada," he wrote.
It was not long before a family friend arrived, along with Suman - "a young woman who would change my life." He was smitten. The two talked often, eventually coming around to the topic of marriage. Manjit wrote about asking her what makes a good husband.
"Someone who loves and takes care of his wife," she "calmly" replied. They were married in June, 1979, and eventually had three children, Reena being the eldest.
After Reena's death on Nov. 14, 1997, it was eight days before police found her body, which had washed ashore in a Vancouver Island inlet. Six girls, aged 14 to 16, were convicted of assault causing bodily harm. Kelly Ellard and Warren Glowatski were convicted of second-degree murder.
During the many legal proceedings, the Virks became familiar figures in court, whether testifying on the stand, observing from the spectators' gallery or commenting to the media. They also told their story in countless classrooms.
Rachel Calder, executive director of Artemis Place, a non-profit organization that offers services to young people, says Ms. Virk's fortitude was striking. "Anyone who is a parent cannot even imagine the strength and integrity she had as a person to participate in that process," Ms. Calder said.
Artemis House helped organize a gathering last November to mark the 20th anniversary of Reena Virk's death.
Ms. Virk was unable to attend because she suffered a heart attack a few days before the event and was still in the hospital, according to Ms. Calder.
Reena's death was not the only tragedy the family faced. Two years after Reena died, Mr. Virk's younger sister, Reena's aunt Harjit Walia, was stabbed to death at her Victoria-area home by her husband as their five-year-old son watched. The husband, Narinder, was charged with second-degree murder. He eventually pleaded guilty. The Virks raised the couple's two children.
For Suman Virk, the tragic murders of her daughter and sister in law converged one day in 1999 when she was attending the trial of Warren Glowatski, and she was asked about the murder of her husband's sister. "What are the odds of something like this happening to one family? What more do we have to endure?" she said to reporters.
She also alluded to where she found her strength: "Just by a lot of prayers and supplications to God Almighty to give us strength to deal what what we have to face."
Ms. Virk said she had no choice but to forgive the children involved in her daughter's death. "If I don't forgive them, then I will be behaving in the same way that they did when they had no forgiveness for Reena on the night that they murdered her."
The Virks eventually met with Mr. Glowatski, and he apologized for his role in killing Reena. At a National Parole Board hearing in 2007 they testified in support of him, saying they believed he had changed, and that he had become a better person.
"I think the most important reason why we've forgiven Warren is so we can just put this whole matter aside and for our own healing and sense of wholeness," she said. "For that, it's an imperative part of going on with our lives."
When he was granted day parole, Mr. Glowatski gave Ms. Virk a hug.
Still, she never forgot the life her daughter might have had, as she told CTV in 2002, on the day before an appeal-court hearing involving Ms. Ellard.
"Yesterday was Reena's birthday. She would have been 19 years old. And, you know, you just can't explain the [void] and the pain that we're going to have to live with for the rest of our lives."
More recently, Ms. Virk was living quietly, travelling and focusing on her faith. "She was spending a lot of time doing her Bible teaching work," Mr. Legg said.
Suman Virk leaves her husband, Manjit; son, Aman; daughter Simren; grandson, Austin; mother, Tarsem Pallan, father, Mukand Pallan; brother, Balraj; and sisters, Naresh and Kim. She was predeceased by her daughter Reena and brother Rav.
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Suman Virk is seen at her home in Esquimalt on Vancouver Island in 2002. Ms. Virk said her efforts to raise public awareness on bullying 'came about gradually' as she realized she did not want her daughter Reena to have died in vain.
JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL