During the last week-end in June, Suman Virk was dining in a restaurant when she choked on her food and tragically passed away. The fifty-eight year old woman had spent the last twenty years of her life fighting against bullying and preaching kindness and tolerance. Her death has created a huge void in the ranks of activists who promote anti-bullying.
If her name is not familiar to you, her story will, no doubt, be. Suman was the mother of Reena Virk who was killed at the age of fourteen by a group of teenagers in Victoria, British Columbia. Reena met other teens under a bridge and she was viciously attacked. Her father, Manjit Virk, in his book “Reena: A Father’s Story” wrote how she had been bullied for years, in elementary school and in high school, until “finally, the bullies killed her”.
On November 14, 1997 a group of teens attacked Reena. After the attack, most of the teens left. Two didn’t leave right away: Warren Glowatski, then 15, Kelly Ellard, then 16. As Reena tried to leave, they attacked her again and drowned her. They were both convicted of second-degree murder.
After their daughter’s death, Suman and Manjit wanted to rebuild their life, live quietly, without reminders of the loss they had suffered. However, the two began to fill their hours with advocacy work. They travelled across Canada, speaking to schools, camps and criminology classes. They took the darkest time of their life and turned it into something positive by using Reena’s death as a weapon against bullying. They also promoted restorative justice. Suman put this into practice when Glowatski was granted day parole. On his first day of leave, Suman Virk was there with open arms and Glowatski tearfully hugged her. Manjit was also there and the two shook hands. On that day, Suman told reporters “He was an angry, sad little kid who was trying to prove something in a negative way”. This amazing woman found it in her heart to forgive the person who had helped murder her child.
In 2009, the Virks were given B.C.’s highest honour, the Anthony J. Hulme Award of Distinction for their work against bullying and in the promotion of restorative justice. Suman Virk called on everyone to “greet others with an open hand instead of a fist”. Upon accepting the award, Suman said “I never thought we'd be doing this type of work, but we felt very passionately and strongly that we wanted others to learn from our tragedy".
Sadly, shortly before her death, Suman said in an interview that even though there is more awareness and so many more resources now than when her daughter died, she was aware that bullying continues and is even worse because of social media. She has now turned the torch over to us to continue in the work she is no longer able to do. It is up to all of us to pick up that torch by fighting acts of bullying and to be kind.