Canada's History - - DESTINATIONS - Nancy Payne

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.” —

The no­to­ri­ous St. Joseph’s Train­ing School in Alfred, On­tario, where Ben­jamin Chee Chee spent four years.

Si­mon Bras­coupé.

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