In the weeks before his messy old life caught up with his clean new one, Leo Nangmalik may have been the happiest ex-con in the North. Relatives said his skin tone took on a vibrant hue and his mangled spine seemed more nimble.
That brightness was evident in a picture that appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail last Saturday, in which Mr. Nangmalik gazes towards the horizon, betraying a trace of a smile. For the previous two days, he'd shared some deeply personal tales, and it felt like a great weight had been lifted from his heart. It had been so long since he'd felt so good, he said. His story acted as the hopeful coda to an article about Nunavut's uncertain future.
Two days before that article was published, Mr. Nangmalik took his own life.
It was a tragic end to a troubled journey, made even more poignant by the stretch of late-blooming tranquillity. That period began one morning last November, a few days before the photo, when Mr. Nangmalik attended a mens' healing session organized by a group from Coral Harbour, 300 kilometres southeast of his Repulse Bay home. They asked him to tell his life story, to let the pain out and, for the first time in his life, he did. It took hours.
Mr. Nangmalik was 50 years old at the time, father of 13 children, victim of three broken backs, holder of a lengthy criminal record. He'd attended Northern Canada's most notorious residential school, Sir Joseph Bernier in Chesterfield Inlet, where he said he was sexually abused by nuns and priests. When he tried to talk about it at home, he said a relative beat him. He looked to sex, drugs and violence for outlets. He moved to Igloolik and became, he was somewhat proud of saying, the biggest drug dealer in Nunavut. For that, he said he spent five years in prison, partly in Iqaluit's Baffin Correctional Centre.
Later in the week, when the Coral men held a healing service for the entire 800-person community, Mr. Nangmalik stood up at the front of the town hall and told everyone that the cathartic confessional had made him feel "a lighter person, a better man." He felt like telling more people. That's when photojournalist Peter Power and I approached him.
He wanted to tell us everything about "all the great pain I've caused in my life," but preferred to do so in his home, a ramshackle cabin about six kilometres from town without heat or electricity. Built of landfill scraps, the shack clung to a rocky point jutting into the icy bay. The snow outside reached our hips. There was no temperature difference inside. We creaked upstairs through an old refrigerator door rigged to insulate the master bedroom. Mr. Nangmalik lit two Coleman stoves, removed his jacket and fixed some tea. He had been living there for 18 months, he said, waiting for housing to free up in town.
For the next hour and a half, he ran through his life's inventory of abuse, both endured and doled out. Much of it appeared in the paper last Saturday. He was making his peace, moving on, and he asked us to spread the word. He never knew when or if his story made print.
In the months that followed, Mr. Nangmalik's progress continued. An apartment finally opened up in Repulse Bay. When friends visited, he would dash over to a light switch and flick it repeatedly, marvelling at the thought of life with electric lights and running water.
"He was skipping around the place he was so happy," said his cousin, Loretta Kanatsiak, who lived next door. "He was healing. You could see it in his face. It went smooth. Everyone saw it, the smooth face."
He'd found steady work as an interpreter with the Coral Harbour group, who travel throughout the region with partial support from Health Canada.
His last trip with the Coral Harbour men took him to back to Igloolik on March 23. They were offering counseling help at a Truth and Reconciliation hearing, according to Ms. Kanatsiak. Someone in town recognized Mr. Nangmalik from his past life as a drug dealer. They reported him to the RCMP, who had an outstanding charge on file, according to his family. He was permitted to return to Repulse Bay, but he was certain the charge would drag him back to Baffin Correctional Centre for a long time.
"With his health and his back, he did not want to go back there," Ms. Kanatsiak said. "He was a different man now. He was bright. And he didn't want to go back to that place."
A day before he was to return to Igloolik for a court date, he met with family, gently informing them that he was going to take his life. There was no talking him out of it.
On March 30, just after lunch, Ms. Kanatsiak heard news of trouble at her cousin's home. She rushed to his apartment with her uncle. There was no answer at the door. Eventually they forced their way in and found him in his bedroom. That smooth, bright skin was cold to Ms. Kanatsiak's touch. Mr. Nangmalik had shot himself in the head.
The RCMP reported the incident immediately, but no name was released until Saturday, April 2, the day Mr. Nangmalik's gaze peered from newsstands across the country.
Leo Nangmalik's casket now rests in the community cemetery surrounded by stones. His family has gathered in recent days from surrounding communities and his cousin has tried to ease their sadness. "He healed himself, he was okay," she said. "We all knew it was going to happen. He planned it. He told us. We know where he is now, in that graveyard where he wanted to be."