A well-known First Nations artist who had struggled with mental-health issues has died in a Thunder Bay jail, prompting questions about why he was being held there and the circumstances of his death.
Moses Amik Beaver, 59, was a Woodlands school artist who was known for his depictions of spirits and animals, painted in vivid colours and outlined in black.
He was found dead in his cell on Monday, said Johnny Yellowhead, chief of the Nibinamik (Summer Beaver) band in northwestern Ontario, in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Regional coroner Dr. Michael Wilson has confirmed that an inmate died at the jail, but would not confirm that it was Beaver. A post mortem is scheduled for Thursday in Toronto, Wilson said.
Yellowhead said he would like a full public examination into whether Beaver committed suicide, and what might have been done to help him.
He said he didn’t know why Beaver was in custody, but said the artist had been concerned about depression and blackouts.
“I wanted him to get properly assessed at the psychiatric hospital,” Yellowhead said, adding that Beaver had struggled for years to get his mental-health issues under control.
Beaver had some problems with public intoxication, but he appeared to have things under control until late December, said Thunder Bay art gallery owner JP Fraser.
“He was a very gentle person,” said Fraser, whose Lake Superior Art Gallery currently has a large collection of his work on display. “He was a very warm, welcoming, outgoing and caring man.”
The artist’s struggle with mental illness made the Thunder Bay jail the wrong place to hold him, Fraser said.
“It is just not a place for someone with mental-health issues,” he said, adding that there is a lack of mental-health services for people in the area.
“His painting skills will be a great loss to the artistic community. And what a waste of a life. He should have had treatment,” Fraser said.
Beaver was popular in his community and enjoyed teaching art to First Nations children, Yellowhead said, describing him as “a nice guy” and “a people person.”
“I wish there was better health care,” Yellowhead said. “He wanted to get better. He asked me to help. He said, ‘could you help me get back on track?’”
Thunder Bay Police Const. Julie Tilbury declined to comment on why Beaver was in custody.
Officials at the jail would not comment on the death.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services confirmed there was a death in the jail on Monday but declined to elaborate.
“Should the coroner’s death investigation determine that the inmate’s death was anything other than natural causes, a mandatory inquest will be held,” Andrew Morrison said in an email.
Family members were arriving Wednesday in Nibinamik by ice roads for a memorial, Yellowhead said.
“It hit a lot of people,” Yellowhead said. “It was shocking. Moses was well known for his art. He was well liked. I feel for the family.”
Beaver’s five-year-old granddaughter lives in the community and “it’s hard to explain to her,” Yellowhead said.
The Thunder Bay jail is the same facility where Adam Capay was held in solitary confinement for more than four years before public outcry moved provincial authorities to better his conditions.
Beaver was a self-taught artist, according to the Lake Superior gallery website. He was born at Landsdowne House but moved to Nibinamik in the 1970s.
“While Moses’ work reflects the black lines of traditional Woodlands art, he embraces his own unique style of embedded images of spirits, human faces and animal forms, transcending physical boundaries to the outer dimensions of the spiritual realm,” the website said. “In this his work reflects symbolism, realism and abstract imagery.”
The Woodlands school of art was made famous by painter Norval Morrisseau.
Beaver was also known to work with youth, teaching them about art and indigenous culture.
“The relationship with youth both inspires and motivates him and is a constant source of personal growth,” the website said.
According to an Aboriginal Multi-Media Society article on the artist, he only had a Grade 7 education but he loved to go to school and speak with children.
“I like to share our aboriginal world view by my imagery, what it means and all that. Our symbols, whatever. Kids love that, especially the white kids. I want to try to make a difference ... might as well start in the young, so that they can understand we are no different than they are,” he said in the 2004 article.