Billy Skead was buried during the winter but the question continues to prick the conscience of his troubled aboriginal community: Why did he die?
Medical reports say Billy died of an overdose of tuberculosis pills, which he stole from his brother-in-law. He swallowed pills once before but people managed to get him to hospital where doctors and nurses saved his life. This time they couldn’t.
The system counts Billy as just one of countless Indian suicides. People in his community, however, say Billy did not take his own life. They say it was taken by an uncaring system that has sapped the spirit of native people and left them to drift aimlessly like autumn leaves fallen into a stream.
Billy Skead was an intelligent and interesting young man. Too intelligent and too interesting to be dead.
He was born and raised on the reserve, the middle child in an impoverished family of three boys and six girls. When he was nine years old his mother froze to death in a snow bank on the reserve.
He was one of the Indian kids who persevered and got some education. He went to community college and learned the carpentry trade.
He thought a lot about the plight of his people and became an activist intent on changing the system. He took part in a blockade and occupation to protest the social conditions in which his people lived.
He marched in an native protest in Ottawa and was arrested by the RCMP.
After that he returned to the reserve and worked as an education counsellor, helping reserve children with school problems and trying to persuade them not to drop out. He organized children’s sports and tried to help people bridge the gap between reserve life and the foreign culture of city life.
“He was a happy-go-lucky person,” his young widow Rose told me when I talked to her. “He liked all kinds of sports. He liked reading and going to the movies.”
“He was a quiet, normal Indian boy,” Rev. John Fullmer, the Lutheran minister who married Rose and Billy told me in an interview.
“Billy was one of those kids who always had a smile on his face,” said Len Hakenson, director of the Addiction Research Foundation.,
Louis Cameron, an Indian leader and Billy’s uncle and friend, told me that many people wonder why a happy, strong and well-adjusted young man with many friends could kill himself.
“This generation is very sincere and has a lot of deep and urgent messages,” he said. “Sometimes to die in an unnatural way is an omen that something is happening.”
Louis Cameron said that perhaps Billy was frustrated by all the change that is needed, but realized that he could not achieve it.
“We Indian people are living in an acute state of emergency,” he told me.
Billy was not one of the victims of Attawapiskat, the Northern Ontario aboriginal community where five more young people attempted suicide last Friday night. There were eleven attempted suicides the previous weekend in Attawapiskat, and a total of 28 in March.
Politicians and news media are pouring into Attawapiskat, which has declared a state of emergency.
Billy also was not a victim in Davis Inlet, an East Coast community where Innu youth killed themselves by sniffing gasoline.
Nor in Grassy Narrows, Ontario where people didn’t have to gulp pills or sniff gasoline to get sick or to die. A nearby pulp and paper mill did that for them by poisoning their nearby fishing waters with mercury.
And not Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, which descended into a social Hell after construction of the W.A.C. Bennett dam dried up the Peace-Athabasca Delta, destroying the hunting and fishing lands of the native people.
Billy Skead was not even of this century. He committed suicide in 1976 on the Whitefish Bay Reserve near Kenora. The column you are reading is basically the story I wrote for The Canadian Press news agency on April 21, 1976.
That was 40 years ago today.
Some things never change, especially for Canada’s native people.