Edmonton's piano man Ryan Arcand, who touched hearts around the world, dies at 46

Ryan Arcand, one of Edmonton's most famous musicians, didn't play at the Winspear Centre for Music or at the Jubilee Auditorium. But his fingers danced over piano keys in public squares, churches, and finally in supportive housing facilities before he died peacefully last week at age 46.

Ryan Arcand struggled with homelessness, addiction long after his music went viral

He was once homeless and impressed millions on YouTube with his piano playing. Now, Ryan Arcand, is back. This time, with a roof over his head. 1:27

One of Edmonton's most famous musicians died peacefully last week.

Ryan Arcand, known as the city's piano man, didn't play at the Winspear Centre for Music or at the Jubilee Auditorium. But his fingers danced over piano keys in public squares and churches, and finally in the supportive housing facilities that became his home in the final years of his life.

He was 46.

Arcand was living on the streets in 2014 when a stranger heard him playing a piano in Churchill Square downtown. The music was so beautiful that Roslyn Polard asked if she could take a video of his performance.

More than three years later, the video of Arcand playing the song he wrote has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube.

As the page views started to add up in 2014, people from around the world wanted to learn more about the pianist.

The CBC met Arcand a few days after the video hit the internet. A friend had told him his performance had gone viral on YouTube.

"He told me, 'Ryan, you are across the world.' I was like, what? 'You've arrived man.'"

Arcand, a member of the Alexander First Nation, was moved into a foster home as a young boy, but stayed in touch with his extended family of cousins. Some were as close to him as siblings.

Carrie Rockwood, Arcand's cousin, remembers he stuttered as a child, but not when he was singing.

"I remember as a kid, Ryan would lock us in a room and play his little toy piano so we wouldn't have to hear the arguing or whatever was going on around. He protected us and he always brought music into everything."

Chris Yellowbird, another cousin, said Arcand came from a family of talented musicians but stood out for his willingness to teach others. As an adult, he was just as passionate about music as he had been as a child.

Arcand always had time for his younger cousins. Yellowbird described him as a "role model" through much of his youth.

"We've got to remove that label, 'the homeless man.' There's a person behind that homeless piano man."

Arcand told CBC he first encountered a piano in the basement of a foster home when he was eight. He fell in love with the instrument immediately and played whenever he got the chance.
Ryan Arcand was delighted when his new piano arrived at Ambrose Place, the supportive living complex in Edmonton's inner city where he had his own apartment. Arcand, 46, died last week. (CBC)

Rockwood said the group of cousins went in their own directions after the death of her grandmother. But when the family did reunite, "it was like a day didn't pass."

Arcand, meanwhile, struggled with alcohol, especially in his 20s. He was open about the fact that his addiction frequently landed him in jail. He would rotate from jail, to the hospital, to the streets.

A memorial will be held for Arcand on the Alexander First Nation on Friday and Saturday. The family will host a feast and stay up all night with his casket, according to the traditions of their community. Burial will be held the next day.

Yellowbird said his cousin went through a treatment program last year, but the two then lost touch.

"I find comfort in knowing his struggles that he went through, all that sadness ... is in the past," said Yellowbird.

Life after a viral video

After the video went viral, Arcand eventually moved into Ambrose Place, a supportive housing complex in Edmonton's inner city. He was there when Polard, the woman who captured his playing on video, gave him his own piano.

She had raised funds through the video to purchase the instrument.

"Now I can play in private," he said at the time. "And write music. That's what I want. I want to write music."

Arcand's life of addiction, homelessness, and mental health problems wasn't changed by that YouTube video. In the last years of his life, he moved between supportive housing programs and the streets.

Those who knew him marvelled at his intelligence and artistic talent.
Arcand told CBC he first encountered a piano in the basement of a foster home when he was eight years old. A video of him playing a song he wrote has been viewed millions of times. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

Rev. Kris Schmidt, an associate priest at St. Joseph's Basilica, said Arcand often stopped by the church. He rarely asked to play music, but often wanted to talk about the Bible. Arcand's knowledge of scripture impressed Schmidt.

"In his best moments, he had a faith that really humbled me, as a priest," he said. "When he wasn't drinking, he was a joy to have around."

But Arcand would harass staff when he was intoxicated and was banned from the church itself.

Arcand worked with a team from Boyle Street Community Services dedicated to "heavy users" of public services.

"(Ryan) was such an icon of resilience," said Jared Tkachuk, manager of outreach services for the organization.

"He was always willing to try again and he never gave up. He had a lot of struggles in his life, lots of trauma, lots of pain. He had a developmental disability and he struggled with mental health. He tried to cope with it all with drugs and alcohol."

Tkachuk said Arcand died peacefully at his supportive housing unit on Friday.

Like anyone who spent time with Arcand, Tkachuk said he can't think of him without thinking about music.

"It's not just that he was a proficient piano player. It was really the tenderness with which he plays. You can just see how much the music means to him and his connection to it."