Simon Brascoupé, a prominent Algonquin artist, worked at the federal government’s Central Marketing Service in the 1970s. In Benjamin Chee Chee’s art, Brascoupé saw echoes of traditional stencil designs used by generations of First Nations craftspeople in creating images of animals, birds, and plants on birchbark.
He also saw loss. “He was very quiet. I think he missed his family. I felt that he was always searching for something.”
Chee Chee’s separation from his family and his time at reform school shaped him. “I don’t think you get over it. His life experience reflects the life experience of many Indigenous people in Canada,” Brascoupé said. “He was another tragedy in our community.”
Chee Chee was “just starting to establish himself. He was experimenting with pushing the boundaries of his art,” Brascoupé said. He can picture another path for Benjamin Chee Chee — one in which he is both a wellknown artist and a beacon for others who struggle. “Some artists start out from a difficult early life, and, as they mature, they are able to get out of their addictions,” Brascoupé said. “He wrestled with finding himself, with who he was as an Indigenous person,” experiences he could have shared with others facing the same questions.
Brascoupé knows many Indigenous people who survived residential school or who were adopted away from their home communities during the Sixties Scoop but who have been able to focus on giving back to their community and to supporting others. Like so many who knew Benjamin Chee Chee, he wondered what was going through the artist’s mind before he killed himself. “People weren’t talking about these things back then. Maybe if they were, that would have helped.” —