Danc­ing His Own Line

A CLOSE FRIEND RE­MEM­BERS THE RAPID RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF OJIBWA ARTIST BEN­JAMIN CHEE CHEE.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Ernie Bies

Ben­jamin Chee Chee’s life came to a tragic end after a suc­cess­ful but short ca­reer as an artist.

BEN­JAMIN CHEE CHEE HAD IT ALL. By Jan­uary 1977, he had achieved the goals he had set for him­self. He wanted to be ap­pre­ci­ated as an artist, one whose work was in­stantly rec­og­nized. He wanted re­spect from mer­chants who would sup­ply his ev­ery­day needs and not de­mand im­me­di­ate pay­ment. He wanted friends and love, and, above all, he wanted to find his mother; he had lost track of her years be­fore.

In his short ca­reer as an artist, Ben­jamin had risen from paint­ing movie posters to see­ing shows of his work mounted from coast to coast in Canada. His paint­ings were sought after in the United States and in Ger­many. He en­joyed fine clothes, good wine and food, and his drink of choice was Chivas Re­gal. He could walk into Chuck Delfino’s men’s shop on Bank Street in Ot­tawa and walk out with the best suit with­out ever hav­ing asked the price. When he needed a new pair of his favourite Bea­tle boots, Flor­sheim Shoes on Sparks Street took care of him. Wal­lack’s Art Sup­plies ran a tab when he needed brushes, paint, or his favourite Arches pa­per. Jimmy’s Tav­ern and La Gon­dola res­tau­rant in Ot­tawa and Café Ver­sailles across the river in Hull, Que­bec, pro­vided him with food and drink, know­ing he would pay at the end of the month — and he was, after all, a big tip­per.

Ben­jamin had no short­age of friends, some fair-weather and oth­ers who gen­uinely cared about him. Tall and good­look­ing, he never lacked for fe­male com­pan­ion­ship. In the sum­mer of 1976, after a long sep­a­ra­tion from his mother, he fi­nally lo­cated her in a tourist camp in north­ern Que­bec, where she was work­ing. In his typ­i­cally flam­boy­ant style, he rented a plane and flew in unan­nounced to sur­prise her. She was swim­ming with some chil­dren, and Ben­jamin jumped into the wa­ter fully clothed to em­brace her. He brought her back to Ot­tawa with him, his fam­ily now com­plete.

After sell­ing ev­ery one of his paint­ings at a show in Van­cou­ver in Jan­uary 1977, he re­turned to Ot­tawa with plans to re­lo­cate to Bri­tish Columbia with his mother. But first he wanted to have one last show in Ot­tawa to co­in­cide with his thirty-third birth­day on March 26, 1977. He spent Fe­bru­ary cre­at­ing new works, de­sign­ing posters and news­pa­per ads, and mak­ing a list of peo­ple to in­vite, in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter, the Gover­nor Gen­eral, and the mayor of Ot­tawa.

Ben­jamin was on top of the world. Then came the tragic night of March 11. Ar­rested for cre­at­ing a dis­tur­bance in one of his favourite restau­rants, he was hand­cuffed, taken to the po­lice sta­tion, and thrown into a cell for un­co­op­er­a­tive pris­on­ers. It was a bare cage.

What went through his mind in the next few min­utes that caused him to take his own life? There is no sim­ple an­swer. Ben­jamin Chee Chee lived life as a shoot­ing star, briefly light­ing up the world around him be­fore run­ning out of en­ergy, his flame pre­ma­turely ex­tin­guished by tragedy.

Ben­jamin was born in Temagami, On­tario, a re­gion of lakes and woods north­east of Sud­bury. He was an Ojibwa, the only child of Josephine and An­gus Chee Chee, who named him Ken­neth Thomas. He was born in the house of his mother’s friend, An­gele Eg­wuna Be­laney, the first wife of Archie Be­laney, the English­man who had adopted First Na­tions ways and had be­come fa­mous as the nat­u­ral­ist Grey Owl. It was An­gele who sug­gested that his par­ents add the name Ben­jamin.

His mother, Josephine Marie, grew up in Notre-Dame-du-Nord, Que­bec. She moved to Hai­ley­bury, On­tario, and then to Temagami, where she met An­gus, a tourist guide, trap­per, and woods­man whom she mar­ried in 1943. Ben­jamin, who was born in 1944, did not qual­ify for the des­ig­na­tion of sta­tus (reg­is­tered) In­dian be­cause his par­ents were non-sta­tus and he was born off-re­serve. Although the ex­clu­sion haunted him all his life, and even after his death, it also drove him to suc­ceed on his own. As he told the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen in 1973, “I want to do it by my­self. Oth­er­wise they will want to own you — they’ll say ‘I helped you then.’ No one can say that now.”

On March 24, 1945, while An­gus was gath­er­ing fire­wood with two other woods­men from the vil­lage, their truck broke through the ice of Lake Temagami, and he drowned. He was buried on Bear Is­land on Ben­jamin’s first birth­day.

The early tragedy set the pat­tern for the dif­fi­cul­ties Ben­jamin Chee Chee was to en­counter for the rest of his life. After An­gus’s death, Josephine had to find paid work, of­ten leav­ing her young son in the care of oth­ers. As he grew older she no­ticed that he loved to draw and whit­tle, tal­ents that un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances might have been de­vel­oped sooner. She also no­ticed a ten­dency to wild­ness in him that, be­cause of her own dif­fi­cul­ties with al­co­hol abuse, she was un­able to con­trol. In a CBC Ra­dio in­ter­view, Ben spoke can­didly about his early life. “The me­mories of Temagami that I had were good and bad, some ugly .... I used to stay out late at night,” he re­called. “I didn’t start to drink un­til I was eleven years old .... I stole things. I got into big trou­ble.”

When he was twelve, Ben­jamin and some of his friends bor­rowed a car for a joyride. He was sent to a Ro­man Catholic re­form school, St. Joseph’s Train­ing School for boys, in Alfred, On­tario, more than five hun­dred kilo­me­tres to the south­east. With no sta­ble home to re­turn to, he re­mained there for more than four years. Hun­dreds of men have come for­ward over the years with sto­ries of abuse at the school and have won sig­nif­i­cant set­tle­ments. There have also been many sui­cides among its vic­tims.

Ben­jamin said he en­joyed play­ing hockey at St. Joseph’s, but he would not talk about his time there ex­cept to re­fer to the Chris­tian Brothers, who were in charge, with a deroga­tory sex­ual ex­ple­tive. Friends as­sumed that his words re­flected the abuse he suf­fered.

Richard McCann, a fel­low stu­dent at the school, re­mem­bered Ben’s re­peated ef­forts to run away. “When they would bring him back they would lit­er­ally beat him un­con­scious. First the stu­dents would be made to beat him, then the brothers would beat him. He would never say a word, never cry out,” McCann told the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen in 1990. He added that the Chris­tian Brothers said Ben­jamin “could take a beat­ing like a man.” Ben­jamin left the fa­cil­ity an an­gry young man. The mis­treat­ment he suf­fered helped to fuel the al­co­hol ad­dic­tion he would bat­tle his en­tire life.

His mother mar­ried Ed Roy in 1960 and moved to North Bay, On­tario. On his re­lease from St. Joseph’s, Ben­jamin came to live with them for a time, tried go­ing to school in Sud­bury,

and then re­turned to Temagami to be near his only friend, Hugh McKen­zie, whom he thought of as a brother. Ben­jamin lived with Char­lotte Pe­shabo and her hus­band on the nearby Bear Is­land Re­serve. Char­lotte, who had been present at his birth, cau­tioned him to avoid the gang of boys from his past; but when they came call­ing he could not re­sist. The boys got into mis­chief, in­clud­ing some “after-hours shop­ping” at the Hud­son’s Bay store, which led to Ben­jamin’s ar­rest. Char­lotte did not hear from him for years. He felt he had let her down, and he de­cided to strike out on his own. Over the next few years, he drifted through north­ern On­tario, try­ing his hand at a va­ri­ety of jobs and con­stantly run­ning afoul of the law, usu­ally for liquor-re­lated of­fences. Dur­ing this time, he lost track of his mother.

In 1965 Ben moved to Mon­treal. Through­out the pre­vi­ous tu­mul­tuous years he had con­tin­ued to dis­play his artis­tic tal­ents, but he never found the sup­port or the courage to pro­mote him­self as an artist. Ben­jamin bus­ied him­self with odd jobs, be­com­ing an ex­te­rior pain­ter. He would point proudly to the Bri­tish pav­il­ion at the Mon­treal world’s fair, Expo 67, and say he worked on the two-hun­dred-foot-high scaf­folds where no one else would go.

While on the Expo 67 site he un­doubt­edly would have vis­ited the In­di­ans of Canada pav­il­ion and likely would have made the ac­quain­tance of some of the In­dige­nous artists who were com­mis­sioned to cre­ate mu­rals and other art­works for that project. Nor­val Mor­ris­seau, Alex Jan­vier, and Ge­orge Clutesi were among the com­mis­sioned artists. Sev­eral In­dige­nous Cana­dian artists also took part in an in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion at Expo 67, some­thing that may have in­flu­enced Ben­jamin’s de­sire to pur­sue a ca­reer that would use his tal­ents.

He found work with a pro­mo­tional com­pany do­ing posters and billboards for movies. He was able to use his tal­ent by il­lus­trat­ing posters for films such as Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, where his love of ab­stract and sur­re­al­ist work be­came ap­par­ent. His favourite project was a pro­mo­tional dis­play for The Grad­u­ate in 1968, in which the lead­ing char­ac­ter’s name was Ben­jamin Brad­dock. Chee Chee took great plea­sure in paint­ing the name “Ben­jamin” in large let­ters on a bill­board.

In an ef­fort to con­nect with Mon­treal’s artis­tic com­mu­nity, he at­tended cof­fee houses and bars fre­quented by artists and would shyly show them some of his early at­tempts. Well­known artists Robin and Dorothy Watt en­cour­aged him to de­vote more time to his art and to try dif­fer­ent tech­niques and me­dia. Dorothy pre­sented him with a set of wood­carv­ing tools as well as a por­ta­ble easel and paint­ing sup­plies. Know­ing that he had no for­mal art train­ing, she gave him sev­eral books on the sub­ject; one was a very ba­sic book called Fun

with Art that helped him to de­velop his sten­cilling and spat­ter-paint­ing tech­niques. Watt also in­vited him to work in her stu­dio, where she could coach him as he learned.

A lawyer in Mon­treal named Fred C. Brown met Ben­jamin in 1969 and took an in­ter­est in him, pro­vid­ing ad­vice and as­sis­tance that sparked the artist’s brief ca­reer. Brown de­scribed Ben as “a bril­liant man, log­i­cal, in­ven­tive, im­pec­ca­ble in his per­sonal habits, metic­u­lous in any work he per­formed.” As­sum­ing that Ben­jamin could ben­e­fit from fed­eral grant and as­sis­tance pro­grams in Ot­tawa, Brown sent a let­ter to Cathy Don­nelly Eberts, an em­ployee of what was then the Depart­ment of In­dian Af­fairs and North­ern De­vel­op­ment (DIAND), in 1972. That let­ter opened the door to Ben’s ca­reer as an artist.

Eberts worked with Six Na­tions artist Tom Hill in the Cul­tural De­vel­op­ment and Ed­u­ca­tion Branch of DIAND. Ben­jamin called her to fol­low up on Brown’s let­ter, and she de­cided to visit him in Mon­treal. He was liv­ing in a neat base­ment apart­ment with his part­ner at the time, Lu­cille L’Or­ange, who was very sup­port­ive and even had him on the wagon. Eberts ex­am­ined Ben­jamin’s port­fo­lio of paint­ings, which demon­strated tech­niques such as sten­cil, spat­ter, stip­ple, and sponge. His sub­ject mat­ter re­flected his First Na­tions in­flu­ences; the works bore ti­tles such as Thun­der­bird De­sign and

Buf­falo De­sign. The geo­met­ric pat­terns that later dom­i­nated his ab­stract pe­riod were also ev­i­dent.

Eberts said some pieces were in­ter­est­ing and some were bad, but she brought back sev­eral to dis­play around her of­fice with a note on the back that in­tro­duced him to the Ot­tawa mar­ket: “Ben­jamin Chee Chee is an Ojib­way from Temagami, On­tario. He has started to paint se­ri­ously quite re­cently but the re­sults are ob­vi­ously very good. Due to his fi­nan­cial cir­cum­stances Ben has had lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence with dif­fer­ent me­dia and tech­niques but hope­fully with the sale of some of his works will come a lit­tle money for art sup­plies. The work you see here is done with inks and oil base paints. Each one is an orig­i­nal and they are for sale.” She added her of­fice phone num­ber at the end for any­one in­ter­ested in the work.

Ben­jamin’s un­for­tu­nate in­ter­ac­tions with po­lice con­tin­ued dur­ing his eight years in Mon­treal, re­sult­ing in six stays at the

in­fa­mous Bordeaux prison. Look­ing for a new start, he de­cided to move to Ot­tawa in 1973. He thought he could re­ceive sup­port and as­sis­tance from DIAND but learned that he was not el­i­gi­ble; the depart­ment’s pol­icy at the time was that only sta­tus In­di­ans qual­i­fied for grants and train­ing pro­grams.

Brown con­tacted Pierre and Marie Gaign­ery at the Ni­cholas Art Gallery in Ot­tawa and ar­ranged for them to see Ben­jamin’s work. They were im­me­di­ately taken by his ver­sa­til­ity and range and gave him his first ex­hi­bi­tion in July 1973. The works were mostly ab­stract de­signs but in­cluded some paint­ings of birds and flow­ers and col­lages us­ing beads on burlap. Ben at­tended the open­ing. Even at twenty-nine years old, he still found it hard to be­lieve that peo­ple would ac­tu­ally pay for his work.

Jenny Ber­gin’s re­view in the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen was ti­tled “Tal­ent tre­bled.” She sug­gested that view­ers might think that, given his range, “two — or even three — peo­ple were re­spon­si­ble for Ben­jamin Chee Chee’s ex­hi­bi­tion.” W.Q. Ketchum wrote in the Ot­tawa Jour­nal, “Though he is largely self-taught, his work is at a pro­fes­sional level.” Tom Hill, who was co­or­di­nat­ing the Cana­dian In­dian Art 74 ex­hi­bi­tion for the Royal On­tario Mu­seum, bought a paint­ing of a group of bi­son shel­ter­ing in the haze of a dust storm for the DIAND col­lec­tion. Hill also paid eight hun­dred dol­lars for a large paint­ing en­ti­tled Mi­gra

tion, which showed the tracks of cari­bou wan­der­ing aim­lessly. Ben­jamin’s sec­ond ex­hi­bi­tion was held at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa in De­cem­ber 1973 and con­tained works sim­i­lar to his first. Cather­ine Ju­tras wrote a de­tailed ar­ti­cle in the

Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen en­ti­tled “Ojib­way artist — sell­ing beads back to the white man.”

“‘I think of my­self as an Ojib­way artist — a mem­ber of the Ojib­way na­tion,’” she quoted him as say­ing, adding, “he re­jects the la­bel ‘In­dian artist’ just as he re­jected the tra­di­tional form and ma­te­ri­als of ‘In­dian’ art.”

Pierre Gaign­ery of the Ni­cholas Art Gallery later ob­served, “Ben­nie went his own way and some­times in­cor­po­rated him­self into a paint­ing. He’d paint a group of an­i­mals or birds with a lone im­age go­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, say­ing, ‘ That’s me.’” Ben­jamin tried sev­eral dif­fer­ent styles, in­clud­ing por­traits and land­scapes, but he al­ways re­turned to his first loves, ab­stracts and birds. At times he would set up his easel and sketch lo­cal scenes along the Rideau Canal or at Rideau Falls near Ot­tawa’s city hall, but he felt self-con­scious with on­look­ers ob­serv­ing him too closely. He re­sorted to tak­ing pho­to­graphs from which he could work in pri­vacy.

Ifirst en­coun­tered Ben­jamin Chee Chee early in 1974 when I worked at DIAND. I had been in­trigued by the im­ages on posters for his ex­hi­bi­tion at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa. One day he wan­dered into my of­fice at­tempt­ing to sell some paint­ings. I chose one and asked the price. With a mis­chievous gleam in his eye, he re­sponded, “How much money do you have?” I counted out all the money I had with me, which to­talled forty dol­lars. He said, “Forty dol­lars,” and then re­con­sid­ered, say­ing he didn’t want to leave me with noth­ing. He gave me a dol­lar back. We formed an in­stant friend­ship that day.

Over the next few years he dropped by my of­fice many times to visit or called me when he needed help, which was of­ten. The help ranged from ad­vanc­ing him money for food and art sup­plies to help­ing him move when he wore out an­other land­lord’s pa­tience, find­ing him le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion when he crossed the line, or just lis­ten­ing when he needed to talk.

My of­fice was on the messy side, and one day he brought me

a flat rock from the river that he had painted and signed. He told me that I now had the only Chee Chee pa­per­weight in the world. An­other time, as we were walk­ing down the street, he picked up a piece of metal strap­ping and twisted it while we walked, only to dis­card it. I picked it up and asked him why he threw it away. He said, “It’s just a piece of junk.” I said, “No, Ben; it’s art.” He had cre­ated a per­fect im­age of one of his “Ben­jie birds.”

Wish­ing to help him reach a wider au­di­ence, I took a se­lec­tion of his work to gal­leries in Kingston, Toronto, Hamil­ton, and Water­loo in On­tario. They were all in­ter­ested in tak­ing some pieces on con­sign­ment; by the time I got home they were call­ing for more.

Al­ways ap­pre­cia­tive of those who helped him, Ben­jamin spoke with great rev­er­ence about peo­ple like Dorothy Watt, Fred Brown, and Cathy Don­nelly Eberts, and he con­sid­ered Pierre and Marie Gaign­ery his sec­ond fam­ily. While he at­tracted com­pan­ion­ship in bars as long as he had money, there were times when he found him­self alone and reached out for sup­port. One Christ­mas Day he called me. I in­vited him over, but, while he said he did not want to im­pose on my fam­ily day, he kept me on the phone for an hour or more. Brown also talked of get­ting phone calls, usu­ally in the mid­dle of the night, in which a lonely Ben would chat for hours.

Ben lived in an apart­ment in Ot­tawa’s Cen­tre­town neigh­bour­hood and was a pop­u­lar pa­tron of nearby bars such as the Gil­mour House and the Alexan­dra Ho­tel. After a big pay­day he’d be known to buy a round for the house. He had count­less friends un­til his money ran out. He was a charmer, quick-wit­ted and blessed with a sense of hu­mour that was ap­par­ent in many of his paint­ings. When he drank his mood dark­ened and he would lash out, even at his best friends. I was never sub­jected to this anger, but I was aware of its po­ten­tial. Ben, who stood five feet ten and a half inches tall and weighed 165 pounds, was de­cep­tively strong and did not re­act to pain, a sto­icism that dated back to his early days at the train­ing school in Alfred.

While wait­ing for his big break­through, Ben­jamin bus­ied him­self with small com­mis­sions il­lus­trat­ing leg­ends, cer­tifi-

cates of achieve­ment, and teach­ers man­u­als for the ed­u­ca­tion branch of DIAND. His iconic styl­ized Canada goose im­age be­gan to take shape. In 1974, Peo­ple’s Art pub­lished his first lim­ited edi­tion of four lith­o­graphs, known as the an­i­mal se­ries: Run­ning Horses, Black Bear, Sea Ot­ter, and Moun­tain

Sheep. His Mi­gra­tion was dis­played at the Cana­dian In­dian Art 74 ex­hi­bi­tion at the Royal On­tario Mu­seum, hang­ing be­side works by Canada’s lead­ing In­dige­nous artists.

That same year, Ben­jamin pro­duced the Ot­tawa se­ries of lith­o­graphs fea­tur­ing four lo­cal scenes. While the street scenes demon­strated one as­pect of his tal­ent, he wanted to per­fect a style that would be in­stantly rec­og­niz­able as his work.

DIAND had cre­ated the Cen­tral Mar­ket­ing Ser­vice (CMS), later the Cana­dian In­dian Mar­ket­ing Ser­vice (CIMS), to as­sist and to pro­mote In­dige­nous artists and crafts­peo­ple, re­gard­less of sta­tus. CMS col­lected works from aspir­ing artists across Canada and acted as a whole­sale sup­plier to gal­leries in Canada, the United States, and Eu­rope. Its staff pro­vided

men­tor­ing, train­ing, and pro­mo­tional ser­vices. Ben­jamin was in­tro­duced to CMS by fel­low artist John Dock­stader and soon be­came a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor and a ris­ing star among its artists and ar­ti­sans.

On Au­gust 31, 1974, he was fea­tured in the Ot­tawa Jour­nal in a full-page pro­file that in­cluded a large pho­to­graph of the artist at work. “When I draw fish or birds or an­i­mals they have no sym­bolic mean­ing from the past. For me they are an­i­mals of the present and I draw them be­cause I like their clean lines and beau­ti­ful shapes,” Ben­jamin told the news­pa­per. The ar­ti­cle said he was work­ing on a port­fo­lio of stamp de­signs that he wanted to send to Canada Post so that ev­ery­one who got a let­ter with his bird stamps on it could say, “I am col­lect­ing the art of Ben­jamin Chee Chee.” Noth­ing came of the ef­fort.

The Novem­ber 1974 is­sue of Cana­dian In­dian Artcrafts pro­filed Ben­jamin, say­ing his work was “rem­i­nis­cent of Paul Klee.” It also re­ported that Dr. Ted Brasser had pur­chased sev­eral of his works for the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of what was then called the Na­tional Mu­seum of Man.

Ben­jamin con­tin­ued to de­velop his iconic birds, which would ul­ti­mately bring him the recog­ni­tion he sought, and closed out the year with a com­mis­sion for a non-de­nom­i­na­tional greet­ing card that fea­tured three geese mar­vel­ling at a star. The Na­tional In­dian Broth­er­hood com­mis­sioned a se­ries of orig­i­nal paint­ings that were used to il­lus­trate its en­tire 1975 cal­en­dar. Through­out this pe­riod, Ben­jamin ex­per­i­mented with his style and sub­ject mat­ter.

He opened the year 1975 with an­other ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ni­cholas Art Gallery. It in­cluded thirty new works fea­tur­ing moose, geese, and seals plus some ab­stracts. W.Q. Ketchum of the Ot­tawa Jour­nal praised the show, not­ing, “he has a fine color sense and his work has an ad­mirable econ­omy of line.” The re­view in the Cit­i­zen was less kind. Although re­viewer Kath­leen Walker ac­knowl­edged that “the col­lec­tion con­sists of free-wheel­ing, imag­i­na­tive draw­ings,” she dis­missed the dis­tinc­tive style Ben­jamin had worked so hard to achieve, say­ing, “once you’ve seen one ... you’ve seen them all.”

Soon after, Robert McKe­own pro­filed Ben in a fea­ture ar­ti­cle in the Toronto Tele­gram’s Week­end mag­a­zine pub­lished on Jan­uary 11, 1975. Ti­tled “The Search of Ben­jamin Chee Chee — to find fame and his mother,” the piece opened by say­ing, “Ben­jamin Chee Chee isn’t fa­mous yet but he’s pos­i­tive he will be. Not ar­ro­gantly pos­i­tive, just con­fi­dently pos­i­tive.”

His friends cau­tioned Ben to ex­er­cise strong con­trol of the mar­ket­ing of his work and to con­tinue to ex­per­i­ment as an artist. Eberts, one of his orig­i­nal cham­pi­ons, told me in

a 1977 in­ter­view that, after his ini­tial tri­umphs, Ben went through a pe­riod of lazi­ness, “churn­ing things out for quick sales and ig­nor­ing ad­vice on prop­erly mar­ket­ing his work.” With the early suc­cess, he had started drink­ing again, she said, prompt­ing a breakup with Lu­cille L’Or­ange.

The CIMS pro­vided Ben with stu­dio space, in the form of a draft­ing table used by its com­mer­cial artists, art sup­plies, and a sta­ble work en­vi­ron­ment. The or­ga­ni­za­tion col­lected his works for fu­ture ex­hi­bi­tions and be­gan to pro­mote him. Peter Al­lard, who worked with CIMS at the time, met Ben in June 1975 and gave him ded­i­cated sup­port and men­tor­ing. “Ben­jamin tended to work in spurts of en­thu­si­asm. Noth­ing for a month and then a week of work­ing night and day,” he said. “Not all of his work was ac­cepted, and he would sim­ply tear up the re­jected pieces.”

Ben­jamin’s paint­ings were in­cluded in group shows that year in Toronto, Kingston, and Brant­ford, On­tario. On Novem­ber 16, 1975, Gover­nor Gen­eral Jules Léger opened the new­est gallery at what was then called the McMichael Cana- dian Col­lec­tion in Klein­burg, On­tario; it was ded­i­cated solely to In­dige­nous artists. Ben­jamin was thrilled that his work was in­cluded in the com­pany of tal­ents such as Nor­val Mor­ris­seau, Carl Ray, and Jack­son Beardy. He had now joined the ranks of those who had been rep­re­sented at Expo 67.

That sum­mer, after a visit back to Bear Is­land, Ben­jamin and his old friend Hugh McKen­zie moved into a bright apart­ment across from Jac­ques-Cartier Park in Hull (now part of the city of Gatineau, Que­bec). Ben fur­nished the apart­ment with govern­ment sur­plus fur­ni­ture and his few other pos­ses­sions, in­clud­ing one cook­ing pot and his art sup­plies. He mod­i­fied a wooden table by drilling sev­eral holes in it to hold his brushes.

He would sub­ject him­self to marathon paint­ing ses­sions, some­times last­ing two days with­out a break, re­ly­ing on Ben­zedrine pills — aptly nick­named ben­nies — to stay awake.

Oc­ca­sion­ally he would make a mis­take or run out of ideas, spark­ing an in­stant of rage when he would throw his jar of paint against the wall in frus­tra­tion. When the anger sub­sided, he knew he would have to pay for the cleanup and re­paint­ing; I once jok­ingly sug­gested that he just sign it and leave the new ten­ants with an orig­i­nal Chee Chee paint­ing.

It was fas­ci­nat­ing to watch him at work. Although his hands had a slight tremor, when he picked up his paint­brush they be­came rock-steady. Fo­cus­ing on a blank sheet of pa­per, he would cre­ate the wing of a bird in one con­tin­u­ous fluid mo­tion. With­out mea­sur­ing or sketch­ing in ad­vance, he in­stinc­tively knew where to be­gin and to end the brush stroke, how much paint he needed, and when to turn the brush.

That apart­ment was the base for many mis­ad­ven­tures that demon­strated Ben’s dis­re­gard for his own well-be­ing. The Café Ver­sailles was just down the street, and he was on good terms with the man­age­ment. One day he had an ar­gu­ment with his girl­friend and stormed out of the res­tau­rant, kick­ing the door open and, in the process, break­ing the glass. He im­me­di­ately went back to the man­ager and put the cost, some four hun­dred dol­lars, on his tab. He then said to the man­ager, “That’s my door now, right?” When the man­ager agreed, Ben went to his apart­ment, came back with a hatchet, and pro­ceeded to chop the rest of the glass out of the door.

Once Ben­jamin de­cided to swim home from Gatineau, for­get­ting about the pow­er­ful cur­rent in the Ot­tawa River. He even­tu­ally came ashore well down­stream, mi­nus his shirt and boots, later say­ing he had floated on his back and en­joyed look­ing at the stars.

That Christ­mas, Ben and Hugh re­al­ized that they didn’t have a tree, so they took the fully dec­o­rated tree from their build­ing’s lobby and dragged it up to the fif­teenth floor, leav­ing a trail of nee­dles and bro­ken or­na­ments right to their door. It wasn’t long be­fore the an­gry su­per­in­ten­dent came knock­ing. In a panic they threw the tree off the bal­cony, and it landed on a parked car fif­teen floors be­low. Ben paid for all the dam­ages, and I helped him to move shortly af­ter­wards.

As re­flected by his art, with its min­i­mal­ist lines, Ben seemed to op­er­ate with lit­tle need for pos­ses­sions. When he moved he sim­ply took his art sup­plies and his clothes and left all his fur­ni­ture be­hind. He gave me his paint-spat­tered table, of which I have made great use over the last forty years.

Ben had no use for ad­dress books, ledgers, or de­tailed writ­ten records; he was blessed with a phe­nom­e­nal mem­ory and hon­oured his debts.

On Fri­day af­ter­noon he would visit CIMS, sell his week’s pro­duc­tion, and then make the rounds to pay off his ac­counts be­fore hit­ting the bars. By Sun­day, flat broke and hun­gry, he’d call friends for help.

Of­ten, after one of these week­ends, I would meet him at a res­tau­rant or gro­cery store and buy him food. I tried to ad­vise him to put some money aside for a rainy day, but he

scoffed, “Money is just pa­per. I can draw some­thing on this nap­kin and sell it — that’s my money.” He lived for the day and never seemed to worry about to­mor­row, although he did once ask me how he could be a straight-liv­ing guy like me. I think we both re­al­ized that, with his artis­tic tem­per­a­ment, he was a long way from a life in the sub­urbs.

Ben’s devil-may-care at­ti­tude of­ten got him into jams. On one oc­ca­sion he even found him­self mar­ried. The mar­riage only lasted a few months, and none of his friends or agents were aware of it un­til after his death. Oc­ca­sion­ally he would ask friends to hold money for him. Char­lie Smith, a buddy from the Gil­mour Ho­tel, re­called, “Once I was hold­ing $160 for him when he called from the Val Tétreault jail in Hull say­ing he needed $100 for bail. Then he went around telling ev­ery­one that I had saved his life.”

Ben was re­spect­ful of the law when he was think­ing clearly, although he did have a po­lice record dat­ing back to 1961, mostly for al­co­hol-re­lated of­fences. Once he ar­rived at my of­fice with two black eyes and a bent nose. I asked him what hap­pened, and he said it was the cops. I asked if he wanted to do any­thing about it, and he said, with pride, “No, I de­served it. But it took four of them.” He ac­cepted that his ac­tions had con­se­quences.

One sum­mer day in 1975 he “bor­rowed” a car on Bank Street, un­con­cerned that he had no li­cence or in­sur­ance, and side-swiped an­other car. I found him a lawyer, Eric Williams, and Ben made good all the dam­ages and fines; he re­ceived a sus­pended sen­tence for his crime. He in­sisted on hand-de­liv­er­ing pay­ments to peo­ple for the dam­ages to their cars, along with an apol­ogy.

Williams was im­pressed with Ben’s in­tegrity and gen­uine re­morse after caus­ing trou­ble to other peo­ple. He felt Ben’s risk­tak­ing would even­tu­ally catch up with him but ob­served that Ben was de­ter­mined to live life to the fullest: “He packed sixty years of liv­ing into his thirty-two-year life.”

On a later visit, I saw a very nice Chee Chee paint­ing in Williams’ of­fice. Ben would of­ten give his paint­ings away to peo­ple

Ben of­ten said that after he died he wanted to come back as a bird so he could soar through the heav­ens for­ever.

who had helped him, whether they were of­fi­cers of the court, taxi driv­ers, po­lice of­fi­cers, or wait­resses.

In Jan­uary 1976, James Pur­die of the Globe and Mail re­viewed a solo ex­hi­bi­tion of Ben­jamin’s work at the Evans Gallery in Toronto. He sup­ported Ben’s re­jec­tion of the “In­dian artist” la­bel, say­ing that at­ti­tude was “im­por­tant, too, to the whole art move­ment now flour­ish­ing but lack­ing di­ver­sity among the Ojib­way.” Ben­jamin did not sub­scribe to the Wood­land style founded by Nor­val Mor­ris­seau; in­stead he pre­ferred to de­velop his own unique ap­proach.

The rest of 1976 saw a con­stant flurry of ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing ex­hi­bi­tions in Water­loo and in Hal­i­fax as well as the re­leases of a new edi­tion of six silkscreen prints fea­tur­ing an­i­mals and birds and of boxed Christ­mas cards fea­tur­ing Ben’s styl­ized cari­bou.

The high­light of 1976 was un­doubt­edly Ben’s re­union with his mother. Peter Al­lard of CIMS had heard that she was in north­ern Que­bec. He lo­cated her work­ing at a tourist camp in Notre-Dame-du-Nord, near the On­tario-Que­bec bor­der. Ben im­me­di­ately set out to find her, char­ter­ing a plane for the last leg. “It was June 27, and I was swim­ming with my nieces at the camp when a plane ar­rived and landed on the wa­ter,” she told me in a 1977 in­ter­view. “Ben jumped out and ran into the wa­ter to give me a hug.” Josephine re­turned to Ot­tawa with him.

Ben spent Christ­mas at Bear Is­land with his friend Hugh McKen­zie and came back to Ot­tawa on Jan­uary 4, 1977. He was so anx­ious to get home that he called me col­lect from North Bay and asked me to send him money so he could take a taxi. I man­aged to per­suade him to take the bus.

He in­vited me to his room at the Alexan­dra Ho­tel and with great ex­cite­ment un­wrapped his lat­est pro­to­type draw­ings for a new edi­tion of silkscreen prints that he called the fam­ily se­ries. He had com­pleted them at Bear Is­land and brought them with him as he rode on the back of a Ski-Doo to Temagami. The prints fea­tured im­ages of two ma­ture geese with a gosling. “Me, and my Mom, and my Pop,” Ben said with glee. His favourite was a pic­ture of the three of them fly­ing high. Ben of­ten said that after he died he wanted to come back as a bird so he could soar through the heav­ens for­ever.

His prospects for 1977 sug­gested that it would be the best year of his life. Pub­lish­ing house Clarke, Ir­win & Com­pany fea­tured Ben­jamin’s soon-to-be-fa­mous Danc­ing Goose as the Jan­uary il­lus­tra­tion on its an­nual “In­dian Art” cal­en­dar. He was sched­uled to at­tend a solo ex­hi­bi­tion of his work at the Wildlife Gallery in Toronto on Jan­uary 8 and an­other at the Wah-sa Gallery in Win­nipeg in Fe­bru­ary. He was most ex­cited about an­other solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mar­ion Scott Gallery in Van­cou­ver at the end of Jan­uary. His good friend Fred Brown, who now lived in Vic­to­ria, would be there, and af­ter­ward Ben would be able to boast of hav­ing had one-man shows from coast to coast. He even at­tended an Al­co­holics Anony­mous meet­ing with his mother, but he was not ready to com­mit. His paint­ings were now sell­ing for five hun­dred to a thou­sand dol­lars apiece, a far cry from the twenty or thirty dol­lars he’d been get­ting just five years ear­lier.

Ben­jamin spent three weeks in Vic­to­ria, where he had many heart-to-heart talks about his life with his friend. Brown mostly lis­tened. “All of the dark and dread­ful cav­erns of his mind were ex­plored, all his ter­rors and fears were ex­pressed; he knew the ul­ti­mate re­sult of his ad­dic­tion — the loss of his great tal­ent,” Brown re­called. “Yet he had hope and de­ter­mi­na­tion: After mov­ing per­ma­nently to Vic­to­ria at the end of March, he in­tended to do some­thing about that ad­dic­tion, and I know he was se­ri­ous, for he was a de­ter­mined man.” But, while in Vic­to­ria, Ben­jamin con­tin­ued his par­ty­ing ways and spent a night in a lo­cal po­lice cell.

He sent me a cheery post­card: “Ex­hi­bi­tion is a roar­ing suc- cess. No snow out here. Say hi to your fam­ily. Ben­jie.” All forty-five paint­ings in the ex­hi­bi­tion sold on the first day, some for as much as $1,200, and he was asked to pro­duce sev­eral new works while he was there.

Ben had de­cided to re­lo­cate to Vic­to­ria with his mother, but he wanted to have one fi­nal show in Ot­tawa to co­in­cide with his thirty-third birth­day on March 26, 1977. All through Fe­bru­ary and early March, Ben­jamin could not con­tain his ex­cite­ment for the up­com­ing show.

The morn­ing of March 11, 1977, started with so much prom­ise. He walked his mother to the bus sta­tion — she was go­ing to at­tend an AA con­fer­ence in Toronto — and then had lunch with a friend at his favourite res­tau­rant. After lunch he de­liv­ered his new­est paint­ings to CIMS, and then ran into Tom Hill on the street. “He planned to do a se­ries of paint­ings or draw­ings about the find­ing of his mother. It was just an­other day in Chee Chee’s life,” Hill said.

Filled with prom­ise and good hu­mour, Ben re­turned to the res­tau­rant for some cel­e­bra­tory re­fresh­ments with an­other friend, Char­lie Smith.

The staff be­gan to dim the lights and drew the cur­tains for the evening din­ner crowd, but Ben still wanted to party. He in­sisted on open­ing the cur­tains and whoop­ing it up. The man­age­ment asked him to go home, even of­fer­ing to call him a taxi. When they fi­nally es­corted him out­side, Ben strug­gled to get back into the

res­tau­rant and, in the en­su­ing scuf­fle, broke the door. Smith tried to take him home, but he wouldn’t leave.

Smith later said of Ben that “when he was drink­ing there seemed to be a per­se­cu­tion com­plex…. He would be mean, and vul­gar, and some­times vi­o­lent. But even at those times you couldn’t help but like the man. To know Ben Chee Chee was to ac­cept him when he was drunk.”

The po­lice were called and tried un­suc­cess­fully to per­suade Ben to go home. He was ar­rested, booked for drunk­en­ness at 6:45 p.m., and placed in a cell at 6:50. Cell No. 10 is a bare cage, de­void of fur­ni­ture and re­served for un­co­op­er­a­tive pris­on­ers.

Brown later wrote a scathing let­ter to the Cit­i­zen con­demn­ing the treat­ment Ben had re­ceived on his ar­rest. “Had he been a se­na­tor, cab­i­net min­is­ter, a prom­i­nent busi­ness­man (and I am sure some of those au­gust groups suf­fer from a sim­i­lar af­flic­tion) he might have been driven home.”

In the few min­utes it took for Ben to make the de­ci­sion to end it all, what went through his mind? The degra­da­tion of be­ing thrown in a cage when he had been fly­ing so high just an hour ear­lier? Did he dwell on the fact that he had hu­mil­i­ated him­self at the res­tau­rant where he had gained re­spect and friend­ships? Ben­jamin had in the past said he wanted to be a role model for his peo­ple. Did he feel like he had let them down?

Such thoughts may have been the fi­nal straws when added to the bur­dens he was al­ready car­ry­ing. The tremen­dous de­mand for his work by gal­leries and col­lec­tors, his at­tempts to main­tain his artis­tic in­tegrity, his de­sire to achieve sta­bil­ity in his life­style, and his ap­par­ent fail­ure to cope with his per­sonal prob­lems likely all com­bined to cause him to take that last tragic step. And did the abuse he suf­fered at St. Joseph’s Train­ing School set him on this de­struc­tive path?

The late Dr. Alvin L. Evans, for­mer pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity, stud­ied and lec­tured on the sui­cide epi­demic among In­dige­nous peo­ple in Canada. In a let­ter about Ben’s death that he wrote to me in March 1979, Evans said “there seemed to be some ob­vi­ous mo­ti­va­tions, such as, his ar­rest and al­co­holism. I think, how­ever, there are some deep cul­tural prob­lems which have de­vel­oped over the sev­eral hun­dred years in which the North Amer­i­can In­dian has been ex­posed to white man’s cul­ture. The In­di­ans’ loss of iden­tity, of lan­guage, of tra­di­tions, of reli­gion, of the sense of worth and value, of self-re­spect, no doubt have con­trib­uted to Ben­jamin’s death, as well as the sui­cides of in­creas­ing num­bers of young In­dian men and women.” Evans pub­lished a book about his re­search in 2004, en­ti­tled Chee Chee: A Study of Abo­rig­i­nal Sui­cide.

Ben watched silently from the back of the cell as an of­fi­cer made the rounds at seven o’clock. Ap­prox­i­mately six min­utes later, the cell­block of­fi­cer re­turned, es­cort­ing an­other pris­oner, and found that Ben had used his shirt in an at­tempt to hang him­self. The of­fi­cer cut him down, but the dam­age had been done. Ben was taken to the Ot­tawa Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal and kept on life sup­port un­til his death on March 14, 1977. The Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen ran a story with the head­line, “He seemed bent on self-de­struc­tion.”

When I in­quired later about how the costs of Ben’s fu­neral had been paid, Gary La­fontaine of the Odawa Na­tive Friend­ship Cen­tre ad­vised me that DIAND could not pro­vide fund­ing be­cause Ben was non-sta­tus; it was one fi­nal re­jec­tion.

In a news re­lease to other In­dige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions, the friend­ship cen­tre an­nounced, “Within our com­mu­nity, a Na­tive per­son

has passed away. His name was Ben­jamin Chee Chee — and with him, he took the tal­ents of a great In­dian artist. We will re­mem­ber him through the work he left be­hind.” The cen­tre ar­ranged for a tra­di­tional Ojibwa fu­neral, with a wake at its down­town premises, where al­most one hun­dred peo­ple signed the me­mo­rial record. “All costs were cov­ered by do­na­tions,” said La­fontaine.

A ser­vice was held at St. Theresa Ro­man Catholic Church on March 18, and, ac­cord­ing to his mother’s wishes, he was buried at Notre Dame Ceme­tery in Ot­tawa’s east end. His friend and fel­low artist John Dock­stader de­signed a tomb­stone fea­tur­ing Ben­nie birds, but there was not enough money to com­plete it.

On June 9, 1977, about a dozen mem­bers of the pub­lic at­tended an in­quest — which is manda­tory when there is a death in cus­tody. Thir­teen wit­nesses, in­clud­ing the po­lice of­fi­cers who were in­volved, the am­bu­lance at­ten­dant, doc­tors, the coro­ner, and Pierre Gaign­ery all tes­ti­fied about the grim se­quence of events that led to Ben­jamin’s death. The younger po­lice of­fi­cers seemed some­what sym­pa­thetic, stat­ing that Ben was not vi­o­lent and that he was be­ing charged with drunk­en­ness be­cause he was “bois­ter­ous, in­tox­i­cated, and stag­ger­ing.” The older of­fi­cers em­pha­sized his his­tory of vi­o­lence in­volv­ing po­lice. His two-page rap sheet, which dated back to 1961, in­cluded his first ar­rest at Bear Is­land for the Hud­son’s Bay store break-in, charges for drunk­en­ness and fight­ing in North­ern On­tario, six al­co­hol-re­lated in­car­cer­a­tions at the Bordeaux jail in Mon­treal, some vis­its to Hull jail, and three in­ci­dents in Ot­tawa, in­clud­ing the in­fa­mous car theft and charges for as­sault­ing po­lice of­fi­cers and re­sist­ing ar­rest.

Cell­block of­fi­cers tes­ti­fied that they did not think he was se­ri­ously in­jured as they de­tected “a weak pulse and seem­ingly shal­low breath­ing.” The cell­block was not equipped with re­sus­ci­ta­tion equip­ment, and no at­tempt was made to re­vive him be­fore the am­bu­lance ar­rived at 7:15 p.m. Dr. Phyl­lis Hier­lihy of the Ot­tawa Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal tes­ti­fied that his death was the re­sult of a pro­longed lack of oxy­gen that caused se­vere brain dam­age. She also tes­ti­fied that his blood al­co­hol level was el­e­vated to the point where it would have caused pro­found in­tox­i­ca­tion, and that no drugs were found in his sys­tem.

The coro­ner’s jury made three rec­om­men­da­tions: “that cell block of­fi­cers be qual­i­fied to ad­min­is­ter ar­ti­fi­cial res­pi­ra­tion with ap­pro­pri­ate equip­ment; that manda­tory and fre­quent rounds of the cell block be car­ried out; and that a bet­ter sys­tem

of mon­i­tor­ing the cell block from the of­fi­cer’s desk be in­stalled.” Per­haps, in death, Ben­jamin saved other lives.

The day after the in­quest, spe­cial sales that had been or­ga­nized by the CIMS opened in four gal­leries across Canada: Ni­cholas in Ot­tawa, Inuk­shuk in Water­loo, Mar­ion Scott in Van­cou­ver, and the Wah-sa Gallery in Win­nipeg. As hap­pens after many artists’ deaths, the de­mand for Ben­jamin’s work es­ca­lated along with prices.

Wah-sa Gallery had orig­i­nally planned to host a solo ex­hi­bi­tion of his art in Fe­bru­ary 1977. “Chee Chee’s death was the first we ex­pe­ri­enced in artists we rep­re­sented — tragic,” Wah-sa’s Gary Scherbain said in a re­cent in­ter­view. He said Ben­jamin in­spired many In­dige­nous artists who fol­lowed him. “His lin­eal style led to a num­ber of other In­dige­nous artists pat­tern­ing his style into their ap­proach — Cle­mence Wescoupe, Doris Cyrette, Isaac Bignell, Hugh McKen­zie, and Sweet­pea [Leo Neil­son].”

In Novem­ber 1978 the CIMS re­leased the fam­ily se­ries of lim­ited-edi­tion silkscreen prints from the orig­i­nals Ben had com­pleted at Bear Is­land around Christ­mas 1976. They were well re­ceived by the pub­lic. The Chee Chee es­tate ben­e­fit­ted from the sale of the prints as well as from sev­eral com­mer­cial ven­tures that pro­moted and sold im­ages cre­ated by Ben­jamin, mak­ing Danc­ing Goose and Friends some of the best-known and most eas­ily rec­og­niz­able im­ages in Cana­dian art.

The nom­i­na­tions com­mit­tee of the Royal Cana­dian Academy of Arts had con­tacted Bob Ger­vais, CEO of Cana­dian In­dian Mar­ket­ing Ser­vices, about Ben­jamin in 1976. Re­becca Sisler, the academy’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, ad­vised me in a let­ter from March 1979 that “it was felt by the Com­mit­tee that Ben­jamin was a young artist, still de­vel­op­ing, and that na­tional, pro­fes­sional recog­ni­tion was a lit­tle pre­ma­ture. Doubt­less, had he lived, he would have be­come a mem­ber of the Academy.”

In 1979, I con­tacted Ot­tawa Mayor Mar­ion De­war and sug­gested that the city con­sider buy­ing a 1974 Chee Chee orig­i­nal paint­ing of Rideau Falls with the city hall in the back­ground. She re­sponded favourably, and a re­cep­tion was held on May 24, 1979, when she and Ben’s mother, Josephine Roy, un­veiled the paint­ing that would hang on the main floor of city hall. More than three hun­dred peo­ple at­tended the re­cep­tion.

Ben­jamin lay in a grave with no head­stone for twenty years, its only marker a small stick dec­o­rated with colour­ful rib­bons and a minia­ture beaded head­dress that a young In­dige­nous girl, Kelly At­ti­giak, had placed on the grave. Carl Crozier, an In­dige­nous man who lived nearby, brought the state of Ben’s grave to the at­ten­tion of the Ot­tawa Na­tive Con­cerns Com­mit­tee (ONCC), a vol­un­teer ad­vo­cacy group. ONCC pres­i­dent Alex Aki­wen­zie mo­bi­lized lo­cal In­dige­nous artists, in­clud­ing Si­mon Bras­coupé, Barry Ace, and Al­bert Du­mont, mem­bers of the Odawa Friend­ship Cen­tre, and many of Ben­jamin’s friends. To­gether they cre­ated the Ben­jamin Chee Chee Me­mo­rial Fund. Bras­coupé pro­duced a new print called Danc­ing Goose, which was raf­fled off in one of many fundrais­ing ef­forts. Ot

tawa Sun re­porter Ron Cor­bett wrote sev­eral sto­ries, and ra­dio per­son­al­i­ties Low­ell Green and Steve Madely took to the

air­waves to pub­li­cize the cause. Lo­cal cit­i­zens and busi­nesses — in­clud­ing Mar­tel and Sons Mon­u­ments, which do­nated the grave­stone — got on board, and DIAND pro­vided a sub­stan­tial grant. Enough do­na­tions were raised to fi­nally erect a fit­ting tomb­stone on June 27, 1997.

Cer­e­monies lasted from dawn un­til dusk. A fire was started at a sun­rise cer­e­mony, and main­tained by keeper Richard Yel­low Quill un­til the day’s events were com­pleted. Ben­jamin’s mother un­veiled the tomb­stone, which was in­scribed with his like­ness, his iconic danc­ing goose, and a quo­ta­tion from the artist him­self, in both English and Ojibwa: “My works are not in­flu­enced by in­ven­tions of mythol­ogy but hon­our the totems of the present.”

Hugh McKen­zie and many of Ben’s friends from Bear Is­land, in­clud­ing Chief Jim Twain, band el­ders, and lo­cal drum­mers, par­tic­i­pated in the events. The may­ors of Ot­tawa and neigh­bour­ing Vanier, On­tario, de­clared June 27, 1997, Ben­jamin Chee Chee Day in their re­spec­tive cities, and both at­tended the grave­side ser­vices. A com­mu­nity feast fol­lowed, and the first plate filled was for Chee Chee him­self, “to feed his spirit,” as Al­bert Du­mont said. Kelly At­ti­giak, by then ten years old, was in­tro­duced to the as­sem­bled crowd as the one who had sparked the drive to mark the grave.

“Re­spect at last” blared the head­line of the Ot­tawa Sun the next day. It was long-over­due but also well-de­served, last­ing re­spect. Temagami First Na­tion Chief James Twain spoke to the grave­side gath­er­ing of about one hun­dred peo­ple, say­ing, “I want peo­ple to rec­og­nize him as an artist … but also as a hu­man be­ing who suf­fered as many of our mem­bers do.”

Ben once ex­pressed his phi­los­o­phy of life in a CBC Ra­dio in­ter­view: “The whole world is mine if I want it. God gave you a life, and it’s up to you to do the best with it. I got lots of prob­lems, but I think I can han­dle it. If I made it this far, I think I can make it the rest of the way.”

The week be­fore he died he came to my of­fice three times. I could see that he was anx­ious. He talked about his con­quests, new and old, and ex­pressed con­cern that his mother was not keen to move per­ma­nently to Bri­tish Columbia. He bought and sent a hu­mor­ous card to Fred Brown and chuck­led when I found two six-cent Christ­mas stamps in my brief­case for him to use. He was go­ing to work in Ot­tawa for a month or so to set­tle his debts and to get a stake so that he could pay rent in Van­cou­ver and take a well-de­served hol­i­day. I was leav­ing for a field trip to the Yukon the fol­low­ing week, and we ar­ranged to have din­ner on my re­turn.

The last thing he said to me was, “You’re a good friend to me, Ernie.” Those words haunt me still.

The Temiskam­ing Art Gallery in Hai­ley­bury, On­tario, pre­sented a ret­ro­spec­tive of Ben­jamin Chee Chee’s life and art early in 2018. Ben’s friend Hugh McKen­zie as­sisted cu­ra­tor Felic­ity Buck­ell in this trib­ute. The ex­hi­bi­tion is now tour­ing to other On­tario cities.

Top and far right: Head­line and photo from a pro­file of Ben­jamin Chee Chee in the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen, De­cem­ber 8, 1973.

Above and right: Re­views from Ot­tawa news­pa­pers of Ben­jamin’s first ex­hi­bi­tion, in 1973.

This mixed-me­dia work by Ben­jamin Chee Chee, Thun­der­bird De­sign, circa 1973, was bought at auc­tion in 2017 and do­nated to the Wa­bano Cen­tre for Abo­rig­i­nal Health in Ot­tawa.

Left: Ben­jamin Chee Chee folded a piece of scrap metal into one of his trade­mark “Ben­jie birds,” circa 1975. Right: He painted this flat rock from the river to be a pa­per­weight at around the same time.

Above: Un­ti­tled, acrylic on pa­per, circa 1972, by Ben­jamin Chee Chee. This paint­ing was pur­chased by Tom Hill, a fel­low In­dige­nous artist, for the fed­eral govern­ment’s col­lec­tion.

Left: Un­ti­tled (Ot­tawa Street Scene 2), print, circa 1974, also by Chee Chee.

Top: Ben­jamin Chee Chee in his Hull, Que­bec, apart­ment, July 20, 1975.

Right: Ben­jamin of­ten worked for days on end while fo­cused on his paint­ing. This photo was taken Au­gust 3, 1975.

Above: Writer Ernie Bies in a 1975 photo taken by Ben­jamin Chee Chee.

From the Mon­treal se­ries of lith­o­graphs, circa 1975. Ben­jamin Chee Chee re­turned fre­quently to the im­age of goose fam­ily group­ings.

Clock­wise from top left: Un­ti­tled, acrylic on pa­per, circa 1975. Un­ti­tled, acrylic on pa­per, circa 1975. Un­ti­tled, acrylic on can­vas, circa 1975. Op­po­site page: A re­view from the Oc­to­ber 2, 1976, edi­tion of the Kitch­ener-Water­looRecord praised Ben­jamin Chee Chee’s com­mand of sweep­ing lines.

Top: Silkscreen print, 1976. Lower left: Josephine Roy, Ben­jamin Chee Chee’s mother, dis­plays pho­tos of some of his work, Septem­ber 1977. Lower right: A poster ad­ver­tis­ing a show sched­uled for Jan­uary 1977 in Van­cou­ver.

Although he did not ti­tle this 1975 work, Ben­jamin Chee Chee de­scribed it as a self-por­trait.

Un­ti­tled (Fam­ily in Flight), 1977. Chee Chee said this paint­ing, which was among his last, de­picted him­self and his par­ents re­united.

Left: A re­port on the find­ings of the coro­ner’s jury look­ing into Chee Chee’s death, from the June 10, 1977, Ot­tawa Jour­nal. Right: Ben­jamin Chee Chee’s grave went un­marked for twenty years, but on June 27, 1997, cer­e­monies were held to un­veil this grave­stone.

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