Thunder Bay

No mental health support available for First Nations artist who died in jail, chief says

The death of artist Moses (Amik) Beaver in a Thunder Bay, Ont., jail highlights the lack of mental health services in remote First Nations, the chief of Beaver's community says.

Moses (Amik) Beaver, 57, of Nibinamik First Nation, helped students express themselves through art

Artist Moses Beaver, 57, of Nibinamik First Nation was declared dead on Monday after he was found unresponsive at the Thunder Bay District Jail. (Facebook)

A colourful First Nations artist who was "warm, outgoing and giving" died in a Thunder Bay, Ont., jail because he couldn't get help for his mental illness, according to those who knew him.

The province's Ministry of Correctional Services said a man was declared dead after being transferred to hospital from the Thunder Bay District Jail on Monday evening. The chief of Nibinamik First Nation told CBC News that man was Moses (Amik) Beaver.

"He wanted help. He wanted to get better. He knew he wasn't crazy," said Chief Johnny Yellowhead. "He asked me, 'Can you help me feel better again?'"

Beaver had a successful career as an artist in the colourful Woodland style and was well known throughout the region for the work he did in schools, helping students express themselves through art.

'He had episodes'

But the 57-year-old's struggles with mental illness were well known in Nibinamik, where he was living last summer, Yellowhead said.

"He had episodes when he wasn't taking his medication," the chief said. The episodes weren't violent, but Beaver became more "aggressive."

"When he was having these episodes, we were trying to get him out [of the community] to get help," Yellowhead said.

But, according to Yellowhead, no help was available through Health Canada, which provides health care on First Nations. And the local Nishnawbe Aski Police Service said it couldn't help access mental health services unless Beaver committed a crime.

Eventually Beaver was arrested after a dispute with someone who was staying with him in the community, Yellowhead said.

Beaver's art dealer, Lake Superior Art Gallery owner JP Fraser, said he heard that Beaver went to jail in December for "drunk and disorderly." Fraser said he was "hurt and shocked" this week at the news Beaver was dead.

A spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of Correctional Services said he can't comment on the reason Beaver was in jail or the conditions under which he was held because the death is under investigation.

The segregation cells at the jail became notorious after Ontario's chief human rights commissioner visited the facility last fall and met with Adam Capay, who had been held in isolation for more than four years.

Capay is currently undergoing an intensive psychiatric assessment.

"I think we have to look at Moses' death as a way of saying people with mental illness need to be treated better," said Fraser, who said he's known Beaver since 2000.

"People with mental illnesses should not be in jail cells because all that does is exacerbate their illness," he said.

'Loud and vivacious'

Fraser described Beaver's work as "very, very loud and vivacious, and he always has a First Nations story in some way woven into his artwork," he said.

He was also a very generous artist, Fraser said.

"If there were new artists, he'd encourage them to bring their work up to the next level," he said. 

Fraser said a man who identified himself as a jail guard came by the gallery within hours of Beaver's death to purchase one of his paintings.

At first, Fraser said, he found the purchase upsetting but he has since come to view it as a tribute to Beaver.

"I think this person was purchasing this painting because of his respect for Moses and wanted something tangible to remind him of him," he said.