A talented schoolboy artist from a famous family of Indigenous painters disappears in Thunder Bay. What killed him?
Within the span of two years, the tiny northwestern Ontario community of Keewaywin First Nation lost two teenagers at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay: Robyn Harper in 2007 and then Kyle Morrisseau in 2009. The deaths of two kids in a community of 350 people is the equivalent of losing 700 teenagers in a city the size of Thunder Bay. Kyle would be the sixth northern First Nations youth to die since 2000. The students were forced to live in Thunder Bay while in high school because there was no suitable high school for them to attend in their remote, northern communities.
In Keewaywin, everyone knew Kyle. He was a sociable, kind boy and a member of Keewaywin’s most famous family, whose patriarch was famed Ojibwe painter Norval Morrisseau. Norval was Kyle’s grandfather. Like many in his family, Kyle was an artist and had a particular gift. It was only a matter of time before he would do great things in the art world.
Norval Morrisseau had seven children with his wife, Harriet Kakegamic who he met in the 1950s while they were both tuberculosis patients in a sanatorium in Thunder Bay. They married in 1957 and led a simple life in the bush in Beardmore and later Red Lake. Harriet taught Norval Cree syllabics and he used them to sign his art which he painted to support their growing family. First came David, then Victoria, Peter, Eugene, Michael, Lisa, and Christian, Kyle’s father.
Christian would stand at his father’s side and watch as Norval painted the stories of the medicine man and the spirits of the Ojibwe, putting to canvas their stories and traditions taught to him by his maternal grandfather, Moses a well-respected shaman.
Living in Beardmore, Norval taught and practised his art. An artist from Thunder Bay, Susan Ross, was amazed by what she saw and convinced Toronto gallery owner Jack Pollock to come north. Pollock was immediately entranced and the exhibit at his gallery in September 1962 was a smashing success. Every single painting sold.
Norval became a Canadian and international sensation. He was commissioned to create a mural for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. He travelled frequently to Toronto. He was living and drinking large.
In 1994, Norval suffered a debilitating stroke, two years after his grandson Kyle was born and the same year Kyle’s brother Josh came into the world. Norval was never the same again.
When Kyle was a boy in Keewaywin, Christian walked him to school every morning.
“From the first day he went to school, he liked it. He liked the interaction, all the grades were in one building. Every morning, he would always get me up, yelling, ‘Daddy, it is school time.’”
By the time Kyle was in Grade 6, he had an odd habit. He gave everything he had away — his new shirt, pencils, paper, whatever he had.
“By Grade 8, all the kids loved him. They looked up to him, they learned from his sharing. And they loved to watch him dance,” Christian says.
When Kyle was in Grade 8, he volunteered to be a dancer in the holiday show. He showed up with his younger brother Josh and began breakdancing. He got down on the floor and moved like lightning, twirling and spinning on his back. Christian’s cousin Robbie, who was organizing the concert, was so impressed he asked Kyle to end the show with a solo performance. He brought the house down.
On Dec, 4, 2007, Norval Morrisseau, the great Ojibwe master, died and Christian put down his paintbrush.
“I had stopped because I used to paint with my dad, I used to see him on the other side of the table. When he died, I just couldn’t paint anymore. But then Kyle said to me, ‘Dad, aren’t you going to teach me how to paint?’ I told him I would teach him but that he had to listen to what I was saying.”
He told Kyle the legends of their people, the shaman’s words, while he taught him to balance colour and paint inside the lines. “I told him to hold the pencil at the ends and let the spirit guide you.”
What Kyle sketched and later painted was remarkable. His talent was innate. The learning came easy; the painting flowed.
When Christian got a call from an Ottawa gallery owner interested in holding an exhibition, he told them only if his son’s work would also be displayed. They agreed. On opening night, nine of Kyle’s paintings were sold compared to three of Christian’s.
The thought of moving away to high school was not easy for Kyle. He did not want to leave Josh or his dad. They were the rocks in his life and the three of them were never separated for long. This must have played in Kyle’s mind when he decided not to leave Keewaywin for Thunder Bay in September 2006. But once his friends were gone, Kyle realized he had made a mistake. So as any kid his age would do — he asked his dad to go with him to Thunder Bay.
Christian knew their bond was special, and that as a father he needed to nurture and cherish it. But he also knew he couldn’t leave Josh behind. So Christian asked Josh if he wanted to go with them: the three of them would move to Thunder Bay.
The Morrisseau men first lived with Christian’s brother Eugene. Christian assumed he could enrol Kyle in the First Nations high school, Dennis Franklin Cromarty. But the school had strict rules that only kids from remote northern communities could attend. Any student wanting to go to DFC had to live in a boarding home. It was a Catch-22 — they were being penalized because Christian had moved to Thunder Bay with his sons.
Christian had no choice but to enrol Kyle with Josh at Sir Winston Churchill Collegiate and Vocational Institute — a school beside Dennis Franklin that offered Grades 7 to 12.
As he had back home, Christian would rise early and walk the boys to school. He enjoyed watching his lithe, enthusiastic and spirited sons head off to the classroom. But by winter, the boys were feeling pretty confident and a bit too cool to have their dad walk them to school. They told Christian he didn’t have to come along anymore. They could make it on their own.
Christian remembers that conversation; it is seared into his mind. He knew it was a turning point in their young lives. He also remembers following them that first day they walked on their own, hiding in the bushes to make sure they made it safely.
That year was full of happiness. The three Morrisseau men moved out of Eugene’s apartment and got a place on Lark St. across town in Port Arthur. It was a hike to get to school but they had more room and some privacy. The boys had their own bedrooms and Christian slept on the couch. The walls were filled with Christian’s bright, bold paintings. The house was always full of kids playing video games, spinning music and breakdancing.
June came around and the boys celebrated a successful end of the school year. Both had passed their grades. Christian and Kyle decided to stay for the summer in Thunder Bay, while Josh went home to Keewaywin.
“I told Kyle he could go too but he said, ‘No, Dad. You came out here so I could go to school. So I won’t leave you.’”
But it was expensive living in the city, caring for the boys and sending money home to Keewaywin. In the middle of the summer, Christian sent Kyle home while he stayed in Thunder Bay awhile longer to wrap up some business. He’d follow Kyle back to Keewaywin later.
That summer, Kyle’s mother Lorene again tried to enrol him with his friends at Pelican Falls high school in Sioux Lookout or at Dennis Franklin with the other northern kids. Pelican was at capacity, but Christian’s cousin Robbie Kakegamic said that there might be room at DFC. Robbie was in charge of the Keewaytinook Okimakanak Secondary School Support counsellors who looked after the students from six First Nations communities.
Kyle could be considered a northern student needing placement. Robbie just had to wait to see if any kids decided to not return. If that were the case, there would be a spot for Kyle.
The call came when Kyle was out partridge hunting with Josh.
“When he came back, I asked him and he said yes. I packed him up and he took off on his own,” says Christian.
Seventeen-year-old Kyle would have to live alone in a boarding house, without his father or his brother.
At first, Kyle called home almost every night but the calls became more sporadic.
On Oct. 6, 2009, less than three weeks before Kyle went missing, Robbie, the counsellor assigned to watch Kyle, wrote a report detailing Kyle’s drinking and noted he had been picked up twice for being intoxicated and underage. In Kyle’s school file, there were notes about his missing the boarding home’s curfew twice. His first semester report card shows a kid struggling. His final mark for visual arts was 2 per cent. In career studies, the teacher couldn’t assign him a mark because of chronic absenteeism.
The Kyle who loved school was nowhere to be found.
When Kyle failed to come home on Monday, Oct. 26, 2009, a school night, Robbie got the call from the boarding parent. He made a note that Kyle was out drinking with Michael Fox and Ivan Masakeyash and that he had missed his curfew.
On Tuesday at 2 p.m., Robbie called Christian and told him that Kyle had blown curfew on three other occasions, but he had always come home. Robbie, along with other teachers, had been out all night looking for Kyle.
On Wednesday, Robbie formally filed a missing-person report with Thunder Bay Police.
Kyle Morrisseau went missing when the inquest into the death of Reggie Bushie had just been announced. Morrisseau’s disappearance reaffirmed Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Alvin’ Fiddler’s suspicions — the kids were vulnerable, living in a hostile city; they didn’t have adequate social support and they were attending a school that was struggling to cope. Kyle was the sixth DFC student lost while attending the school. The DFC staff were desperately trying to keep their students safe. They knew they weren’t just teachers or receptionists or janitors; they were caring for the nearly 150 kids who were several hundred kilometres from their homes. They did everything they could to be parents to their students — fed them three meals a day, the Elders’ room was always open, with bannock and a fresh pot of tea at the ready and their vans patrolled the streets, 24-7, looking for wayward kids.
Christian went to his chief in Keewaywin and told him he needed to fly to Thunder Bay.
He remembers looking down at the orange and yellow city lights twinkling on Superior. He remembers filling himself with hope and faith. I’m going to find him, he thought, and I won’t come home until I do.
Security footage shows Kyle at the Intercity mall at 7 p.m. Robbie had the last two people to see Kyle alive give a statement to police. Rhanda Kakekagumick and Aaron Bluecoat said that Kyle and a man named Ivan Masakeyash approached them at the mall and asked if they wanted to go for drinks. They spent about half an hour under the train trestle at the McIntyre River.
Kyle got drunk fast. Police notes indicate he asked Ivan if he knew how to get him a gun for protection. Rhanda told Kyle not to be foolish, he didn’t need a gun. Rhanda said Kyle got mad and started pushing her. She said that she pinned him down in an effort to calm him. She told police Kyle apologized and she “ditched him there and left the area.”
When it came to why he wanted a gun, she said that Kyle’s shoes had been stolen as well as his weed and even some Percocets.
Aaron backed up Rhanda’s story. He said he agreed to go drinking because he was concerned that Kyle was with Masakeyash, who seemed a bit shady. Aaron said they shared a bottle of whisky then he went to get something to eat. He returned to find Rhanda pinning Kyle down. He didn’t know what they were arguing about.
Kyle’s mother, Lorene, told police she spoke with her son at 10 that evening. He told her he was at his boarding house and that his boarding parent, Barb Malcolm, was at the hospital with her husband.
Kyle asked for his friend Tyler Neekan’s phone number. He told his mom he was going to the Brodie St. bus terminal. She told police he sounded high. Kyle told his mother he had been drinking a little. He asked her to deposit more money into his bank account. (Christian deposited $36 into Kyle’s bank account, but the money was never accessed.)
Before he hung up, Kyle told his mother that he loved her.
On the night that Kyle went missing, Ivan was arrested after a man named Frank Williams had called 911 alleging Ivan had tried to break in.
Robbie tracked down Ivan at the Thunder Bay Jail and asked about Kyle. Earlier, Robbie had searched Kyle’s room and found notes regarding what appeared to be debts that someone owed. Robbie worried Kyle may have gotten mixed up with the Native Syndicate, an Indigenous gang. But Christian did not believe his son wrote the notes. It wasn’t Kyle’s handwriting and further, he knew his son well — there was no way Kyle could be part of the Syndicate.
Police records indicate Ivan was interviewed on Nov. 11, 2009. Ivan told police he’d just met Kyle when he’d gone drinking with him on Oct. 23 (Ivan would later testify that it was the 26th). He denied he was associated with the Native Syndicate.
Christian spent 10 days looking for his son.
He gave up on the 10th day because Lorene woke up in their hotel room screaming, “Dad, come here!”
Christian asked her what was wrong and she wailed, “No, it hurts.”
He thought breakfast would help her but she was unable to eat. She asked if Christian thought someone was feeding Kyle. Christian told her that he did not know.
“That hurt me. As soon as I heard that I went to the LCBO and I grabbed a 60-ouncer and started guzzling. I drank all day.”
Christian could not control his anger. He walked to the river to curse Nanabijou, the Sleeping Giant, the formation of volcanic rocks that resembles a man lying on his back, his arms folded on his chest.
“I paint everything, I share all your stupid-ass stuff, and this is what you give me? F–k you. Give me my son back!”
Thunder Bay Police found Christian on the street.
Back at the hotel, he slept all day and dreamed about his son. Kyle was dressed in red and he was bopping around, twirling fast like the Tasmanian Devil from the Looney Tunes cartoons. Kyle spoke to him and said, “Dad, I’m hurting too.”
Christian woke up to his son Josh telling him the police had retrieved a body in the river. “I went to the school but I knew already. They found him floating. I knew it was my son.”
Kyle’s body was discovered by a man walking down by the water. He saw something floating in the McIntyre River, southbound along the railway trestle. He called police.
Police noted burn holes in the front of his pants and a tear on the outside of the left thigh. The post-mortem noted abrasions on both shins. His blood ethanol level was 228 mg/100 mL. Between 300 and 400 is considered fatal.
Coroners believe Kyle drowned but that while alcohol was a contributing factor to his death, it wasn’t the cause.
Christian was full of rage. “I was so f–king mad.”
Norma Kejick, the Northern Nishawbe Education Council director of education, remembers waiting in the hospital coffee shop as she watched Christian go to identify his son. Kyle’s mother, Lorene, stayed in the lobby, surrounded by family. What Norma heard next stopped her cold. Christian had come back to speak to Lorene, who let out a loud, hollow wail. It was the sound of a mother learning her son was dead.
They drove to the school, where they were met by police and members of the community. Christian spoke to Constable Baxter and then asked Josh to go for a walk. He wanted to head to the nearest river to pray.
“We took some tobacco and when we laid that tobacco we said, ‘Miigwetch. Thank you.’ That is it. It was not easy to thank the river for taking my son.”
An edited excerpt from Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. Copyright © 2017 Tanya Talaga. Permission granted by House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher. Seven Fallen Feathers is available for sale online at StarStore.ca/seven . A portion of each sale will go to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty Memorial Fund, which financially assists Nishnawbe Aski Nation students. The book is a finalist for the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.