Skip to main content

The Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in Whitehorse is helping Yukoners through a hard year of opioid-related deaths and the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking for things to sell to raise money, its executive director uncovered an unexpected treasure

In some dog-eared boxes in a filing cabinet, the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre found decades-old works like these by Carl Beam, an artist from the M’Chigeeng First Nation in Ontario.Artwork: Courtesy of Skookum Jim Friendship Centre • Photos: Mike Thomas/The Globe and Mail

It’s -26 C with the wind chill as Casey McWatters hands out bowls of steaming hamburger soup. Over lunch, she often gives out some 250 bowls to men, women, teens and elders from a table set up outside the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in Whitehorse.

“Last week we had a woman whose feet were frozen,” says Ms. McWatters, a member of the Ta’an Kwäch’än, a self-governing First Nation. “We didn’t have any boots to give her so we gave her two wool hats to put over her shoes. It was better than nothing.”

Funds are running low for the oversubscribed hot-lunch program, which relies heavily on donations. The friendship centre – which also provides health, educational and training programs – is just one of a number of local NGOs and First Nations grappling with the combined impact of a growing opioid crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lasting trauma of residential schools.

Casey McWatters carries out a batch of soup for lunch distribution.

Yukon now has the highest rate of opioid deaths in the country, with 48.4 deaths per 100,000 people – more than double the national average. So far this year, 21 Yukoners lost their lives to opioids, a staggering figure for such a small population, prompting many local governments and NGOs to question what more they can do.

That’s what spurred Bill Griffis, the new executive director of the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, to start rifling through some old boxes under his desk. He was looking for items to raise money through an online silent auction, and he had heard there was some art under there that had been donated in the mid-1990s. The first dusty boxes he opened held 155 original paintings by various artists, many in the style of Norval Morrisseau, depicting whimsical, vibrant creatures.

This work by Stephen Snake is among the items to be auctioned off to benefit the friendship centre.

Then Mr. Griffis discovered more dog-eared boxes in the back of a filing cabinet and, days later, even more in another cabinet. The 114 works in these boxes were very different from the first batch of paintings, with photographic images transferred onto coloured plexiglass or stamped print paper. The name scrawled on all these pieces was Carl Beam.

It wasn’t until the works were shown to Mary Bradshaw, the curator at the Yukon Arts Centre gallery, that the friendship centre realized what it was sitting on.

“Carl Beam is a grandfather figure in Indigenous contemporary art in Canada,” Ms. Bradshaw says. “He’s incredibly significant – really a risk taker who pushed what a First Nation artist could be, and made space for Indigenous art to be considered contemporary.”

Mr. Beam was the first Indigenous artist to have a work purchased for the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent contemporary art collection. From the M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, he worked in various forms, including plexiglass, stone, ceramic and photo etching, often blurring mediums to create his own unique style.

In Columbus Blues, one of the pieces found at the friendship centre, a black-and-white thumbnail of Christopher Columbus is printed on bright red plexiglass above a torn label that says, “The poison around us.” Another of the works printed on bright green plexiglass shows fishermen standing atop a dead whale above an X-ray image of the human body. Pictures of dead whales are common themes in several of the pieces, as are photo transfers of Sitting Bull, Joker playing cards, pigs and Canada stamps.

The National Gallery mounted a major retrospective of Mr. Beam’s work in 2010, five years after his death. The touring show, called Carl Beam: The Poetics of Being, “commemorates an influential individual who dismantled many of the barriers surrounding contemporary First Nations art,” long-time art critic Robin Laurence wrote for the Georgia Straight in 2011.

No one is quite certain how Mr. Beam’s work ended up at the back of those filing cabinets at the friendship centre in Whitehorse, though Mr. Beam’s first cousin, Joe Migwans – a cultural counsellor, drum maker and long-time Yukon resident – knew some pieces had been donated years back. “Nobody wanted them,” Mr. Migwans says. “A pig and a playing card, really? You’re going to hang that on your wall? Nobody got it.” The prints were appraised in 1997, when Mr. Beam was still alive, at upward of $1,200 a piece.

The discovery of the artwork was a very welcome surprise, Mr. Griffis says, especially during a year of significant hardship. “It’s going to go a long way to help us.” The friendship centre is partnering with local organic farm Sundog Veggies for its online auction fundraiser, which runs until Dec. 18.

Sundog Veggies has been donating half its produce – more than 11,000 kilograms annually – to local First Nations and the friendship centre. With the auction, they hope to raise $200,000, to bolster the centre’s overstretched lunch budget, which is in dire need of more food and additional fridges. Meanwhile, Sundog plans to use some of the funds to establish future land-based programming. “We want to teach people how to grow food, and use the land to heal,” Mr. Griffis says.

Before putting some of Mr. Beam’s works in its online auction, the friendship centre let Mr. Migwans choose one of the pieces. In soft white gloves, he carefully flipped through the pieces, which are now being held in a vault at the Yukon Arts Centre.

“I worked on all this stuff with him,” says Mr. Migwans, who spent a lot of time with his cousin in Ontario and saw him as something of a mentor. “He taught me how to do photo emulsion, flashing light on a negative – we even did it on flat limestone we found at a quarry on Manitoulin.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Mr. Beam was sent to residential school.

“When he came out of there, he was pretty upset,” Mr. Migwans says. “He wanted to take away the stereotypes around First Nation people. We have culture and come from that, but it doesn’t define who we are – you can’t put us in a box.”

Mr. Beam did not define his work as Indigenous, despite much of it dealing with First Nation struggles, his cousin says.

“He got into the National Gallery as a contemporary artist, not because he was First Nation. He didn’t use being First Nation as something to get him forward; he did things his own way.”

After going through the work in the vault, Mr. Migwans chose a piece with an image of a fetus curled inside its mother’s belly. The black and white photograph was printed on bright orange plexiglass. Under the image, written in sprawling pen, it said, “Poem for the unborn ... you could never believe the rational ...”

Mr. Migwans got shivers when he saw the orange print with those words written to an unborn child. The parallels with Every Child Matters – the Orange Shirt Day logo, which has also come to commemorate the unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the sites of former residential schools – are uncanny, he says. “Think about the rationale of residential school. You could never believe the rationale.”

Joe Migwans, Carl Beams's first cousin, holds a print that reminded him of the imagery of Orange Shirt Day, which commemorates residential-school survivors.

The lasting trauma of residential schools touches almost every First Nations family, says Gary Bailie, a Whitehorse-based Kwanlin Dün First Nation elder. On Oct. 22, he lost his daughter to fentanyl. She was 27.

“We need to change the way people perceive addiction,” Mr. Bailie says. “It needs to be treated as an illness.”

More people are dying in Yukon from opioids than from COVID-19, he says.

Not long after his daughter’s death, two more young women died from overdoses. “So many of her friends – beautiful young women and men – keep dying and nothing is being done about it,” Mr. Bailie says. “Nobody chooses to be homeless or an addict. My daughter didn’t want to die. We need to be less judgmental and more compassionate. That’s something we can do as a community.”

Yukon First Nations, and Indigenous peoples across the country, are dealing with multiple crises and so much grief, says Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill. “First Nations are being disproportionately hit by both COVID-19 and the opioid crisis,” she says. “We are dealing with one death and then another happens right on its heels.”

Ms. Bill wants as many resources put toward the opioid crisis as are going to the COVID-19 response. “We need to start acting like the opioid crisis is the emergency it is,” she says.

Yukon opened its first safe consumption site at the end of September, and is starting to offer safe drug supply, though stringent eligibility requirements remain a deterrent. Ms. Bill is calling for easier access to safe drugs; more First Nation support staff at the consumption site; and the decriminalization of drug possession, so those in trouble aren’t afraid to call 911.

She also wants more mental-health supports, especially in rural Yukon communities. COVID-19 restrictions have limited services and heightened isolation, she says, meaning more people are using alone.

Even the short connection made as people pick up lunch at the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre can make a difference, Mr. Griffis says. “It’s a check-in.”

As she hands out lunch, Ms. McWatters greets many by name, then asks how they’re doing. The bags of soup, juice and pudding are starting to dwindle when a man asks for an extra one to take to a friend, to help get him off the couch. Ms. McWatters doesn’t hesitate. “It never used to be this bad,” she says.

She is seeing more and more people homeless, hungry and struggling with addictions. “I’ve lost so many friends to fentanyl,” she says. “It’s becoming such a common thing that we don’t celebrate much anymore. It’s always just funerals.”

A man gets his lunch from Casey McWatters at the friendship centre.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.