Raven Thundersky, indigenous health advocate, dies at 50

A Manitoba indigenous woman who advocated for victims of asbestos-linked cancers has died.

'The last thing she did was smile,' Thundersky's daughter Raven-Dominique Gobeil says

Raven Thundersky passed away Thursday. (Supplied)

A Manitoba indigenous woman who advocated for victims of asbestos-linked cancers has died.

Fifty-year-old Raven Thundersky was found dead in her home on Christmas Eve. She had been sick with lung cancer for over 10 years.

Thundersky was involved in the call for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW), but was perhaps most vocal on health issues faced by people living in homes with asbestos-containing insulation.

Thundersky believed Zonolite insulation might have been responsible for her illness and those of at least five other family members who died of cancer. Zonolite contains the fire-resistant mineral vermiculite.
Raven Thundersky speaks to a crowd at the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks. (Supplied)

It has been used in homes for decades in Canada and may contain traces of asbestos. The federal government eventually invested $360,000 into removing Zonolite from military homes in Manitoba, but only years after it first encouraged the use of the product in homes.

From 1977 to the mid-1980s, homeowners who installed products including Zonolite in their home were eligible for grants under the federal government's Canadian Home Insulation Program. It was used in Thundersky's family home on Poplar River First Nation in northern Manitoba.

Thundersky called for an inquiry into the use and safety of Zonolite in 2008. 

U.S.-based W. R. Grace and Company, the chemical company behind the product, proposed to pay $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit from Canadian homeowners. Thundersky said at the time she thought that figure was "an insult to families."

In the years that followed, Thundersky's condition worsened but she continued to be involved in the MMIW movement. Her own sister, Barbara Keam, was found beaten to death on Norway House Cree Nation in the early 80s.

One of Thundersky's daughters, 23-year-old Raven-Dominique Gobeil, said the fact that Canada is finally getting an inquiry into MMIW is a result of the grassroots efforts of people like her mother over the past decade.

"They've helped shed more light to make missing and murdered what it is now," Gobeil said. 

Thundersky never shared too many details about the nature of her illness with her children, Gobeil said. 

"She kept a lot of things pretty private about it," Gobeil said, adding her mother's positive spirit stuck around until the very end.

"Even when she was sick, she was enjoying life," Gobeil said. "She was like, 'You know what? I know it's coming, but  I'm going to spend time with my children.' We went and we visited her everyday until she died. I remember the last thing she did was smile."

A GoFundMe page has been started to help Megan Butler, another of Thundersky's daughters, cover travel costs associated with coming from British Columbia to Manitoba for her mother's funeral.

Thundersky's funeral will take place Dec. 31 at 10 a.m. at Eternal Grace Funerals in Winnipeg.

With files from Samantha Samson