The family of influential artist Moses Amik Beaver is demanding answers after their loved one was found dead in his cell at the Thunder Bay Jail on Monday, February 13, 2017. The 59-year-old Beaver struggled with mental health issues and those close to him want to know why he was being held in jail and not a health care facility. Jails in Canada are too often used by the state as holding centers for Indigenous people in need of health care not punishment, even well after health care issues have been identified.
Local Indigenous leaders, including Johnny Yellowhead, chief of the Nibinamik (Summer Beaver) band in northwestern Ontario, where Moses Beaver’s family lived has called for a full public examination into Beaver’s death and what might have been done to help him. He could not say why Beaver was in custody but reported that he had expressed concern about depression and blackouts.
In a prepared statement released Thursday, February 16, 2017, Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski First Nation said:
“The sudden and unexplained death of Moses Beaver was devastating to his family and everyone in Nibinamik. For Moses to die under these circumstances is troubling on so many levels, especially as his death has not been officially acknowledged by those responsible for his care. We are doing everything possible to support Chief and Council and the family of Moses Beaver, and we will demand an investigation into the circumstances around his passing.” (quoted in Talaga and Edwards 2017b).
Said Chief Yellowhead: “Our dear friend Moses Beaver had struggled for many years with mental health issues but we do not understand why he was in custody or the circumstances that led to his death. It is clear that Moses needed professional help and a psychiatric assessment, and we demand to know why this didn’t happen” (quoted in Talaga and Edwards 2017b).
Thunder Bay art gallery owner JP Fraser remembers the artists whose work his gallery has featured: “He was a very gentle person. He was a very warm, welcoming, outgoing and caring man. His painting skills will be a great loss to the artistic community. And what a waste of a life. He should have had treatment” (quoted in Talaga and Edwards 2017a).
Fraser identified the Thunder Bay Jail as the wrong place to hold someone with mental illness (a fact clear to many except police it seems). In his view: “It is just not a place for someone with mental-health issues” (quoted in Talaga and Edwards 2017a). One issue that emerges in city after city in Canada is that mental health services and funding are insufficient while police budgets continue to increase even as crime rates drop.
This point is emphasized by Johnny Yellowhead: “I wish there was better health care. He wanted to get better. He asked me to help” (quoted in Talaga and Edwards 2017a).
Thunder Bay Police and jail officials have refused to comment on either why Beaver was being held in custody or on the circumstances of his death. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services confirmed that there was a death in the jail on Monday but would not say more.
The Thunder Bay Jail is already quite notorious in the Canadian context. It is the very facility where Indigenous youth Adam Capay (23) was held in solitary confinement for more than four years before public pressure pushed provincial authorities to change his conditions.
Moses Amik Beaver painted in the vivid Woodlands style associated with Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau. He was well known for his depictions of spirits and animals, painted in vivid colors and outlined in black. He was also very much appreciated for his work with children in local schools.
Talaga, Tanya and Peter Edwards. 2017a. “First Nations Artist Dies in Thunder Bay Jail and Days Later Grieving Sister Killed in Car Crash.” Toronto Star. February 15. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/02/15/first-nations-artist-dies-in-thunder-bay-jail.html
Talaga, Tanya and Peter Edwards. 2017b. “First Nations Leaders Demand Investigation into Moses Amik Beaver’s Death.” Toronto Star. February 16. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/02/16/collision-kills-sister-of-first-nations-artist-moses-amik-beaver.html