Pictou Advocate sports

That familiar smile is gone forever


I never met Heidi Stevenson, the RCMP officer who was one of the victims of the devastating murder rampage that shocked all of us two Sunday mornings ago.

Members of my family and her family know each other, however.

Our daughter Charlotte and Heidi’s husband Dean were among a group of friends who attended school together in Cole Harbour during the 1980s.

Later, our granddaughter Claire and the Stevensons’ son Connor began minor hockey together when they were five and six years old. They’re now students at Cole Harbour’s Astral Drive Junior High. Connor’s sister Ava also plays hockey.

Through the kids’ involvement in the sport, our younger son Graham and Dean Stevenson, a teacher at Cole Harbour District High, became friends.

The Stevensons have been a beloved family in their community and beyond. In her 23-year career, Heidi served two stints in the Cole Harbour detachment.

Connections like these aren’t uncommon in our province. Nova Scotians easily befriend Nova Scotians in many ways. Multiply the number of people killed in that terrible shooting spree and you understand how so many of us knew — or knew of — one or more victims.

No wonder a whole province — a whole country — shed tears.

As Nova Scotians, we’ve had our share of tragedies. Among them were the Springhill mine disasters in the 1950s, Pictou County’s Westray Mine explosion in 1992, and the Swissair 111 crash in 1998.

This time it was a much different kind of tragedy.

Extending across more than 100 kilometres of our beautiful province, it became Canada’s deadliest-ever mass shooting. It was a cowardly act carried out by one individual.

In time, Nova Scotians will heal. They always do.

It was, in Premier Stephen McNeil’s words, “one of the most senseless acts of violence in the province’s history. What happened here in our province is not what we are. It may change us a little, but it cannot define us.”

It’s easy to agree with him. As the number of victims climbed, it was a nightmare that none of us will forget for the rest of our lives.

By now, though, you may be wondering why I’m discussing this dreadful incident in a sports column.

First, it’s the one thing on our minds, other than the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, a very good athlete was among the victims.

Heidi Stevenson, before becoming a Mountie, was an athlete. A good athlete. Let’s not overlook that part of her life.

In the 1980s, she was Heidi Burkholder, attending school at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High in Antigonish. She was smart, always eager to succeed in everything. One of her activities was playing in the school band.

Following graduation in 1989, she didn’t stay in the cathedral town for university. Instead, she went to Wolfville to begin the science program at Acadia University, focusing on chemistry and biology. She got her degree in 1993.

Heidi Burkholder became a star and leader with the Acadia women’s rugby team — a four-year achievement after which she played on a Nova Scotia squad.

Nobody in sports knew her better in a rugby uniform than Steve Lenihan, her coach in both university and senior ranks.

“She was always smiling and laughing, and really enjoyed life,” he was quoted in one media report. “She was a very happy person, very committed, a very good athlete. She was a strong leader of the team, but caring and compassionate.”

After switching from a rugby uniform to an RCMP uniform, her work, her dedication to duty, her love of police responsibilities magnified her personality.

She faced all challenges head-on.

Heidi was adored in her sparkling red uniform whenever and wherever she performed in the RCMP Musical Ride.

She served in another rewarding capacity in her community — as a liaison officer at Cole Harbour High. That’s where she and Dean met.

They fell in love and became a happy couple who everyone around them admired. Thirteen years ago, son Connor was born. Two years after that, along came his sister Ava.

Heidi loved life so much.

As the years passed, she went to work each day, always a smile on her face, Dean would worry, praying that nothing bad would happen on her shift. Spouses of police officers do that.

Then came April 18, a Saturday.

Heidi was on duty in Colchester County, putting in an overnight shift. It would be her last.

She didn’t know an evil man was about to launch 12 hours of hell.

As an entire world soon learned, the man with vicious intentions was about to shoot anyone in his way.

Heidi would be one of the first responders to confront the enemy. She died while attempting to protect her fellow Nova Scotians. She was 48 years, nine months and eight days old. Much too young to die.

The smile — that familiar smile — is gone forever.

In an instant, a happy family was shattered. A husband lost his wife. Two youngsters lost their mother. Countless relatives, friends and neighbours cried.

An entire province and country mourned. Then it mourned some more. The shock, the heartbreak spread quickly.

The worst crime ever committed in this province grew worse and worse as the death toll climbed higher and higher. Almost two dozen died needlessly, senselessly.

The sorrow was felt in Portapique, in Debert, in Wentworth, in Great Village, in Shubenacadie, in Enfield, in places close and far. Few communities escaped the pain.

I’ve often mentioned the many thousands of columns I’ve written. Yet I don’t think many of them were harder to do than this one.

A final comment?

I quote Justin Trudeau, our prime minister.

“Every day,” he told us, “law enforcement members put themselves in harm’s way to ensure our safety and well-being. That’s what Heidi — for the last time — was doing when the shooter ended a lovely life.”