Egan: ‘Never met anyone more empathetic’: happy Brenna River, passed away at 58

Even weeks later, friends and family are still talking about the lifelong musician and community activist who has generously volunteered for numerous groups.

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As she lay dying in her tiny house, in a more difficult corner of town, her friends continued to gather to sing—in the backyard, at a Zoom tribute, with carols under her window.


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It’s quite something to be loved. It was quite something to be Brenna Rivier, who died on December 15 at the age of 58, about three and a half years after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Even weeks later, friends and family are still talking about the lifelong musician and community activist who volunteered to join numerous groups — serving on shelves, serving Christmas dinner at the Carleton Tavern, or serving her neighbors from vats of homemade soup and sauce.

“I’ve never met anyone more empathetic than her,” Elizabeth said Zdansky, her 60-year-old neighbor since 12 years.

“She had this heart, this huge heart that went out to everyone. I’ve never seen her on the street without, say, a bag for the Food Bank.”


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Her death also marks another sad milestone for the River family in 2021. Mother Jean passed away in March and sister Marlene (best known as an NDP candidate in Ottawa West Nepean) lost her husband Allan the following day to a COVID infection he left behind. had chosen to be in the hospital.

“She wanted to live in a friendly and joyful world and she created it,” said friend Kayren Mosurinjohn, who first met Brenna when their daughters were just a few weeks old, as they were taken in strollers through the narrow streets of Hintonburg. pushed.

“She was a joyful light.”

Family and friends describe Brenna as unconventional. She started playing the drums as a teenager and you could see her walking down the halls of Woodroffe High School in slippers, with drumsticks sticking out of her back pocket.

She was a proud lesbian – a regular at Pride events – and raised a daughter, Sadie, now 18, with partner Marika, who is described as the center of her life. She worked for the Canada Revenue Agency in the charitable division for many years, but mostly retired during her illness, diagnosed in March 2018.


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Remarkably, Sister Shelley was diagnosed with breast cancer at about the same time – their mother also survived an attack – and said Brenna was undergoing a number of treatments, including chemo and surgery.

“It didn’t seem to matter what they did. It just kept popping up. But she was so brave.”

(And she retained a sense of humor. When her hair fell out, she had her neighbor paint the rainbow colors on her bald head so she could attend a well-decorated event.)

Brenna River, (R) and her two sisters, Shelley (L) and Marlene (C).
Brenna River, (R) and her two sisters, Shelley (L) and Marlene (C). jpg

Shelley said the girls learned about social justice at home, especially from their mother. Proud of their Jewish roots, Brenna later served on the boards of the Ottawa Modern Jewish School, Jewish Family Services, and Community Mediation Ottawa.

In her own neighborhood, she was a board member and one-time president of the Hintonburg Community Association, and in 2005 she was a leader of a ‘Walks for Safety’ effort in a mixed neighborhood that was going through a major transition.


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“She was so helpful in changing the neighborhood,” Zdansky said. (Brenna knew she was an outsider. Once in her 20s, she came home from the ByWard Market with a black eye, inflicted for being hand-in-hand with a friend.)

Music was a central part of her life and friends and colleagues at work recall singing just about every old place, any time of the day.

“That’s how I knew Brenna was coming to my house,” Shelley said. “I heard her coming up the driveway singing.”

While raising their children together, Kayren said a group of parents in the area started an informal “Street of Rock” group where children would be encouraged to learn, sing and play popular songs, with Brenna teaching drums.


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These flowers came from Joan Armatrading.
These flowers came from Joan Armatrading. jpg

She was later in several choirs, a band called Herb Girls, participated in the annual West End Porchfest, wrote and recorded music. She was a huge fan of singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading and the family was stunned when she received a bouquet of condolences from the artist a few days after Brenna died.

The youngest of three girls, Brenna grew up in Britannia. (Her sister Shelley tells the funny story of how her father, Bob, who was then incarcerated in the old “San” for tuberculosis treatment in the 1960s, snuck home one afternoon to visit his wife. Brenna was the result nine months later. .)

In the fall, when Brenna was starting to get pretty weak, neighbors quickly staged a get-well song in the backyard. “I called some neighbors who called some neighbors,” Kayren said, and it wasn’t long before a gang of troubadours had gathered, some with only pots and wooden spoons.

Brenna was moved and even played a few songs on the drums, some of the last beats she would keep.

She was once asked about the motive for her volunteer work.

“We have been taught from an early age to take action and make a change in any way we can,” she replied. “If you want something to happen, you make it happen, whether it’s reaching schools, community associations, walking along a line, telethons, you give the time for what you believe in.”

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email



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