Artist, fisherman, residential-school survivor, family man. Born May 10, 1946, in Duncan, B.C., died Jan. 23, 2012, in Duncan from complications due to multi-system atrophy, aged 65.
A Coast Salish artist whose work is recognized throughout the world, Delmar Johnnie was raised in Khenipsen, one of the seven tribes of the Cowichan, and given his great-grandfather’s name, Seletze.
Delmar often told of how, as a young boy, he loved to fish in the Cowichan River near his home at Green Point, B.C. He sometimes watched an old man across the water cleaning fish and singing as he worked. One day he sang the song he’d heard the old man singing and his grandmother asked him where he’d heard it. The song belonged to his great-grandfather, Seletze , who was in the spirit world.
Many years later, while being interviewed for a documentary film, Delmar would quip, “I’d rather be fishing any day – like today!”
He taught his boys to spear fish in the river, and made fishing look so exciting that he once inspired members of the Edmonton Oilers, who were at training camp in Duncan, B.C., to strip off their suits and join him in the river.
At a very young age, Delmar was taken from his family and placed in the Kuper Island Indian Residential School near Chemainus, B.C. He was one of the first survivors to share his story publicly, and became a role model and mentor in the residential-school recovery movement.
Delmar was fond of saying, “You know, I wasn’t always the good person you see standing before you – it took a lot of work.”
He shared his residential-school story not only to help others find the courage to speak, but also to apologize to those he loved for the hurtful behaviours that came from the experience.
The strength it took to transform to a kind and generous man was enormous, and Delmar consciously set out on a journey to create happiness in his life and the lives of those around him. When you were with him you felt like the most important person in the world.
His daughter Larissa remembers how he’d phone her at the office and say, “Is the most important person in the world there?” and she’d reply with a smile, “Speaking – it’s me.”
Whether working as a drug, alcohol and youth counsellor or mentoring other artists, Delmar’s generous spirit touched the lives of many and he tucked many young people under his broad wings.
Delmar and his wife Victoria were married in 1995 at Green Point and Delmar became a stay-at-home dad to their daughters, Rosie and Robina, the youngest of his 10 children. His other children are Joanne, Karen, Delmar, Raphael, James, Dietrich, Larissa and Nolan.
He will be deeply missed by his family and all those who had the privilege to know him. But whenever we feel the need to talk to him we’ll know where to find him: He’ll be at his favourite fishing spot, down by the river.
Christine Welsh is Delmar’s friend.