Earl Burns was a veteran of the Canadian military who tried to protect his family and Saskatchewan community of James Smith Cree Nation until his very last breath.
A non-profit app in the works has been named in his honour. The Burns Way chat app would allow veterans to instantly connect with trained military peer supports, while filling service gaps for those who live in rural areas or are isolated.
"Everything at The Burns Way is about human beings supporting other human beings and to facilitate all of that to the idea of connection," said John MacBeth, founder and CEO of developer TryCycle Data Systems.
He said that when he and his team learned Burns was a veteran, it was obvious that Burns encapsulated "the valour, the courage, the duty" that the app should be named for.
Burns was one of 11 people killed in September 2022 when his former son-in-law went from house to house stabbing people on the James Smith Cree Nation and in the nearby village of Weldon. Seventeen others were injured.
Burns, 66, was stabbed along with his wife in their home. When the attacker drove off, Burns chased after him in a school bus but died along a roadway.
MacBeth added that children were also in the home at the time, and Burns saved them.
"Earl Burns stood in his own doorway and defended the children in his protection, literally, with his life."
Burns served with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. After leaving the military, he became a father and a grandfather. He competed in rodeos. He also bought his own school bus and drove students every day to school on the reserve.
Macbeth said the family of Burns — specifically his wife, Joyce Burns, who survived the attack — have given their blessing for his name to be used for the app.
The family will also "have a seat at table," he said.
TryCycle spent 15 years trying to improve Indigenous health care, MacBeth said. The company previously started a similar app called the Talking Stick, which offers anonymous peer support for Indigenous Canadians.
"The Burns Way is basically a reimagination of what we are doing," said MacBeth.
The Burns Way is designed to offer an "anonymous and judgment-free space," where messages would be automatically deleted after the chat ends. A user requiring immediate, professional attention would be invited to connect with a support leader through another platform.
MacBeth said cellphones, today, are ubiquitous.
Three weeks ago, the company did a presentation at a legion in Ottawa. "There was a lot of senior veterans there. Every veteran there had a smartphone."
For those who don't have a cellphone, a computer can also connect to the service.
The app, which is set to be out in 2024, would be available in English, French, Spanish and 10Indigenous languages, MacBeth added.
He said the company is currently seeking federal funding for the app. About seven or eight veterans organizations have signed on and others are pending.
A spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Legion said it's pleased to support the project and is advocating for government funding to help get it running.
"We believe that when fully functional as intended, it will greatly benefit veterans by having anonymous peer support from someone with shared cultural and spiritual backgrounds and experiences," Nujma Bond said in an email.
Chuck Isaacs, a retired Métis sergeant and president of the Aboriginal Veterans Association of Alberta, said, "It's a step forward to allow the concept that Indigenous people may have some input on the healing of all soldiers."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2023.