Thunder Bay

Death of Norval Morriseau's grandson loss to artistic community, inquest hears

A coroner's inquest in Thunder Bay, Ont. will hear more details Monday about the death of the grandson of acclaimed Canadian painter, Norval Morrisseau.

Kyle Morrisseau's promising artistic career cut short, First Nations student deaths inquest told

Interview: Christian Morrisseau

12 years ago
Duration 8:55
Kyle Morrisseau, 17, the grandson of renowned native painter Norval Morrisseau, was reported missing on October 30, 2009. Kyle's body was recovered from the McIntrye River in Thunder Bay on November 10, 2009. In this video interview, Kyle's father, Christian Morriseau, of Keewaywin First Nation, talks about his son.

A coroner's inquest in Thunder Bay, Ont. will hear more details Monday about the death of the grandson of acclaimed Canadian painter, Norval Morrisseau, known as the Picasso of the North.

Kyle Morrisseau is one of seven students from remote First Nations who died while attending school in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. Their deaths are the subject of one of the largest inquests in Ontario's history.

Norval Morrisseau's son, Kyle's father, is expected to testify at the inquest on Monday. Christian Morrisseau told the CBC News program the fifth estate that Kyle started painting shortly after his grandfather died in 2007.

"His art was really progressing a lot faster than I would have ever imagined," Morrisseau said.

Kyle's uncle, Pierre Morriseau (family members vary the spelling of their last name), testified at the inquest last Thursday.
Kyle Morrisseau was 17 years old when he died while attending high school in Thunder Bay in 2009. (CBC)

The family lives in the close-knit community of Keewaywin, about 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

"He was always in good spirits and he always wanted to paint," Pierre Morriseau said of his nephew, who would come rap on his window early in the morning, wanting to visit.

"We try to teach our kids our dad's style because my dad, Norval, had his own style of paintings, making paints and we try to pass it on to our kids."

Kyle's mother, Lorene Morriseau told inquest jurors that her son held an art show in Ottawa when he was 15 years old and quickly sold out his paintings.

'He really loved the bush'

He wanted to be a painter like his grandfather, she said, and return to Keewaywin to start a family — after he finished high school.

"He really loved the bush," Lorene Morriseau said, adding that her son was lonely for his family when he came to Thunder Bay, on his own, as a 17-year-old, to attend high school.

Norval Morrisseau was dubbed the 'Picasso of the North' for his striking style, as shown in this 1990 work titled Thunderbird Shaman Teaching People.

"I believe the reason he came out here was for a brighter future and a better education for himself. But things happened differently," said Kyle's brother, Josh Kakegamic, who is also scheduled to testify on Monday.

Kyle Morrisseau was last seen on Oct. 26, 2009 by classmates who shared a bottle of whiskey with him on the banks of the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay. His body was pulled from the river on Nov. 10.

How he got into the water remains a mystery that the inquest may, or may not, solve.

Pierre Morriseau was one of many people who searched for Kyle in the city for days. When a body was found, he was among the family members who went to identify Kyle.

"I just thought he had been beaten up," he said of the bruises he saw on his nephew's body.

Josh Kakegamic says his brother, Kyle Morrisseau, came to Thunder Bay from Keewaywin First Nation "for an education and a brighter future." Kyle died in 2009 while he was attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school in the city. (Martine Laberge/CBC)

Kakegamic said he thinks of his brother every day and hopes the inquest results in high schools being built in remote First Nations.

"I think it's a better solution that they go to high school in their own community so that their families feel a lot safer knowing their kid is with them," he said.

'They come back in a body bag'

But a former chief of Keewaywin told the inquest that a high school is an unlikely proposition in the tiny community of about 300 people.

"You're sending kids out to get an education and they come back in a body bag," Meekis said. "It hurts all the time but I cannot build a high school in a community for 15 students."

Morrisseau was the third student from Keewaywin to die during the course of three years, Meekis said. One student died in Sioux Lookout, the death of another, Robyn Harper, is also part of the inquest. 

Meekis said his daughter was close friends with Harper and the pair used to talk about returning to "take over" Keewaywin after high school, saying to each other "you'll be the chief and I'll be the manager."

The deaths are a "devastating loss of potential of that person for the whole community," he said.

Watch live streaming video from the First Nation student deaths inquest here.

Follow @cbcreporter on Twitter as she tweets from the inquest.