Palmira Danielle Gomes Boutillier was born in Nanaimo, B.C., on Sept. 12, 1981—her mother’s birthday. “She was a great birthday present,” says Maria Gomes, who worked at Malaspina University-College. Her father, Jim,was a research biologist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
At 14 months, Palmira’s mom and dad separated, with both parents sharing custody. Her mom remarried when Palmira was three, and two years later her sister, Jesse, was born. Palmira’s father also remarried, and when Palmira was five, one of her close friends from preschool, Meghan Gorosh, suddenly became her step-sister. “It was total chaos,” Meghan says of the two having to share a tiny room. “There was suddenly this brand new concept of sibling rivalry, but we got over it pretty quickly.”
From a young age, Palmira took responsibility to heart. While in kindergarten, she saw herself as the caretaker of the taxi that drove kids from school to daycare. If the driver ever took a slight deviation in the route, Palmira picked up on it immediately and let the driver know he was going the wrong way.
When Palmira was seven, her blended family grew on her father’s side with the birth of Jaclyn. Already having a sister at each home, “Palmira really wanted a brother and said, ‘take her back,’ ” Jim says, with a laugh. But she was friendly and easygoing, moving between separate lives with each family.
In Grade 8, she joined the Army Cadets with a few of her girlfriends, much to the surprise of her parents. For four years, she’d go for weekly training and monthly excursions to learn things like rock climbing, rope rappelling, and building survival shelters. “It really reinforced how much Palmira loved nature and spending time outside,” says her friend Kristen Wald.
Always up for adventure, Palmira travelled to Europe after graduating from the University of Victoria, where she had studied biology. She worked odd jobs for almost two years; in Belfast, Northern Ireland, she was a receptionist for a public housing office in a rough neighbourhood where workers stayed behind locked doors—all except for Palmira, who met face-to-face with the public.
She returned to B.C. in December 2004, finding short-term jobs in Ucluelet and Vancouver before moving back to Nanaimo in 2006 to work for Fisheries and Oceans Canada as a biologist, like her father.
In 2009, she met Miles Howe, a musician, through a friend. Miles was looking to settle down on Vancouver Island and Palmira had a room for rent in her home. Within a week, Miles was smitten and brought Palmira to the beach for their first date. They would go for hikes, with Palmira often wearing a cardigan—which her friends referred to as “Pal sweaters.” She was famous for her hugs, and also loved yoga and dancing. “She would be the first person on any dance floor,” Miles says. “She was totally unabashed and fearless.”
Palmira kept up with her travels, going to Australia and Thailand with Jaclyn, but at work she grew restless with her desk job. In 2010, she decided to move to Halifax to study journalism at King’s College. Jesse drove across the country with her and Miles moved there soon after. In a new city, Palmira was quick to make friends. She’d sometimes introduce herself with a rhyme, says Miles: “Pal Boutillier—put her here,” and extend a handshake.
Palmira interned with the CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks and wrote occasionally for the Halifax Media Co-op, a local independent news outlet. She favoured unconventional science-based stories, like why people should love sharks. She also developed a passion for organic farming and became a local food activist. Three days a week, Palmira would travel to Waldegrave Farm in Tatamagouche, N.S., and help pick eggplant and rainbow chard, among other tasks. “She would phone me and say, ‘This farming is difficult, but then I just look up and see how beautiful it is out,’” Jim says.
On Aug. 15, Palmira was out picking raspberries at Ironwood Farm near Summerville, N.S., and was stung by a hornet. No one knew her to be allergic, but she had an anaphylactic reaction. Her heart stopped briefly in the ambulance before she was airlifted to Halifax. Doctors pronounced her brain-dead on Aug. 19. Palmira stayed on life support for one more day so that her liver, heart, lungs and kidneys could be donated. She was 31.