When Bernadette Vermaas saw the proprietor of a clothing store slumped on the floor of her establishment, under attack, her first reaction was to protect the woman as she lay behind the counter whimpering, her face bloodied.
Although the petite Edmonton hair stylist barely knew the victim, she was willing to put her life on the line for her during the January 23, 2001, attack. Walking away never crossed her mind. “If it was my time to die, so be it. However, I felt pretty sure I could rescue Ljiljana.”
An employee at the salon next to the clothing store, Ms. Vermaas, then 39, had learned about the attack from a coworker. Responding, Ms. Vermaas said she experienced no fear, despite the assailant being armed with a long, serrated kitchen knife and two contaminated syringes. She remained calm.
Ms. Vermaas explained that her past had prepared her for that moment. Life had made her tough. At 13, she had left home, determined to escape what she described as an abusive atmosphere. Being so young, however, she could not find employment, which meant she could not afford an apartment or even a room in a boarding house.
“I lived on the streets with the other homeless people. It was not easy,” she said. “Often I was scared. Then, when I turned 14, I qualified for a job. I worked at McDonald’s. This gave me money to pay for a room at the Y.” Eventually, she went to back to school and learned a trade. “I made something of myself. But it was always a struggle. Always.”
In her 20s she became a mother and today is a single parent raising two daughters. She also started a business that she kept going for several years. “But then it failed, and I had to start all over again,” she said.
Standing in front of the counter, Ms. Vermaas stared down the assailant, a female cocaine user with a history of 14 criminal convictions. “The reason I wasn’t afraid was because, all of a sudden, a loving warmth rushed through me.” The “warmth” she attributes to “unseen forces that protect us. I believe in that. I think that when you are in the right, when you are for goodness, you get special help.”
Ms. Vermaas also believes in herself. Wielding a broom and then a snow shovel because it was a sturdier weapon, she confronted the assailant, who hovered over the proprietor, and told her in no uncertain terms to get out of the store. Tall and about 190 pounds, the assailant had bludgeoned the storeowner’s nose with the knife handle, breaking it in two places. She had also stabbed the 52-year-old woman with a syringe.
“In this person’s mind, Ljiljana had it better than her and, because of that, she had a right to rob her.” The cash register contained very little cash, “and this intensified her bad feeling toward Ljiljana. I think she may have wanted to hurt her very, very badly.”
A look in Ms. Vermaas’s eyes, which she felt were “glowing like fire,” had its intended effect. “She realized that I was tougher than she was, even though I am smaller. Bullies are actually very weak, you know. They will back down if you don’t seem vulnerable.”
With the shovel, Ms. Vermaas swept everything off the top of the counter, giving her easier access to the woman, who had grabbed the proprietor’s purse. Perhaps fearing that the shovel would be used on her head, as was promised, the assailant backed from behind the counter. Using the store’s rear door, she exited into an alley. Not wanting her to get away with the purse, Ms. Vermaas followed until police took the woman into custody.
“It’s like I tell my daughters, who are teenagers. When you see something you feel is wrong, something you don’t like, you have to do something about it.” For risking her life for the safety of another, Ms. Vermaas was awarded the Carnegie Medal.