Sailor Dan's death shines a light on wider issues of mental health and homelessness

"As well-known as Dan was, he still fell through the cracks," says a Saskatoon shelter manager.

'As well-known as Dan was, he still fell through the cracks,' says shelter manager

Sailor Dan was a well-known nautical artist in Saskatoon. (Matthew Kruchak)

The family of Daniel Hicks — the artist and street figure known to Saskatoon residents as Sailor Dan — has asked for donations to a group that raises awareness about mental health and addictions. 

Hicks' family will hold a private funeral for the 65-year-old Saskatoon man at a later date, according to his obituary.

Hicks died of respiratory failure in a Saskatoon hospital on Tuesday, while being in correctional custody for an alleged theft.

Matthew Kruchak took a picture of Sailor Dan every time they crossed paths. (Matthew Kruchak)

In life — and on the surface — Hicks was a colourful and entrepreneurial artist whose persona was memorable.

In death, Hicks has become a flashpoint for discussion about larger mental health issues in the city and Saskatchewan.

This Twitter exchange from the day of Hicks' death exemplifies the tension that exists within the conversation. 


Hicks' family is suggesting that, in lieu of flowers and other sympathy arrangements, people make donations to the Royal University Hospital Foundation's Community Mental Health Endowment.

Arla Gustafson, the foundation's CEO, says the endowment helps fund everything from The Lighthouse Supported Living shelter in downtown Saskatoon — where Hicks was known to have sometimes stayed — to in-patient care at the city's Irene & Leslie Dubé psychiatric centre.

"We were very humbled when his niece reached out to our foundation," said Gustafson. 

"We're very fortunate to work with the frontline staff and the people who connect with the program through health care. And it is not unusual for people who are not aware of what may be behind a person's illness to be frightened by it." 

It speaks to some of the challenges that we have ... in helping some of the most vulnerable in our community.- Chris Randall

Gustafson said she knew Hicks for 20 to 25 years. Her children all gave him car rides, she said. 

"He was an engaging fellow," Gustafson said. "He was an excellent artist but when he was ill and he wasn't getting the support that he needed and he was suffering from issues like homelessness, or when people are on the street, they don't have a lot of ability to be healthy, emotional-wise."

Struggles with homelessness

Chris Randall, the manager of frontline services at The Lighthouse, knew Hicks for over 10 years. One particular encounter stood out to Randall when he learned of Hicks' death Tuesday.

"A year and a half ago, in the middle of the winter, I picked [him] up down about a block from my house in Riversdale," said Randall.  "Dan was standing on the corner at 19th Street and Avenue F S and needed to get up just past the Broadway area for [some] sort of a medical appointment.

"We had a good conversation that day about where he was staying in and some of the struggles that he had. Dan was in and out of The Lighthouse, and in and out of other housing stuff, and really struggled with it."

Hicks was 65. (Peter Mills)

Notoriety didn't change Hicks' life position: shelter director

Hicks never spoke about any mental health issues, Randall said, "but when you sort of heard his stories, it was very much the conclusion I gathered that he had some mental health challenges."

Randall welcomed the family's suggestion of donations to the mental health endowment.

But Randall added that Hicks' fame didn't change his life status. 

"Someone who is one of the most well-known persons in our city, who struggles with mental health challenges — if they can fall through the cracks, how much more can your average person who's homeless or struggling with homelessness and is struggling with mental health also fall through the cracks? 

"I think it speaks to some of the challenges that we have through the community and in helping some of the most vulnerable in our community."

'Each of us makes a contribution'

Sailor Dan was arguably the most recognizable man in Saskatoon. (Matthew Kruchak)

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark, in a Facebook post Tuesday, said he got to know Hicks over the years and came to understand "some of the challenges he faced but also how much he was immersed in this city and its people."

"He's left a remarkable legacy of who knows how many sailboat drawings that will carry his story on in living rooms and offices throughout the city and the country," Clark wrote.

"A reminder that each of us makes a contribution regardless of position or stature in a community."

A sailor's send-off

Matthew Kruchak spent nearly three years photographing Sailor Dan. (Matthew Kruchak)

Hicks' family appended the following sailor's prayer to his obituary. It was originally written by Capt. Eugene W. Roddenberry and published in the New York times in 1945.


Oh, for a glimpse of the sea again, 
For the thrill when the ocean spray, 
Caught from the crest of a rolling wave, 
Is a kiss from a sea bouquet. 
Give me the wheel of a sailing ship 
And the surge of the briny main. 
Bring on the wind till the hawsers sing 
And the spars and the lanyards strain. 
Sing me the chanteys of sailing men 
To the tune of a northern gale. 
Sing to the music of anchor chains, 
To the beat of a popping sail. 
Bury this frame in these fields you must, 
But this soul is unfettered and free. 
I'll set my sails to a western wind 
And beat my course to the sea. 

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

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