Nishnawbe Aski Nation is mourning the loss of a respected elder and community leader.
More than 600 people, including chiefs from neighbouring First Nations and from different parts of the territory, converged on Kashechewan April 14 to bid a fond farewell to Elder George Wesley as he was laid to rest following a heart attack that took his life.
“He was a warden for the people for more than 35 years sitting on a senate committee for the Anglican Church of Canada where he represented the community and would deal with community and family issues on our behalf in a faith-based way,” said Leo Friday Sr., a deputy grand chief of Mushkegowuk Council, who has worked professionally with Wesley for many years and who was also his brother-in-law, confidante and friend.
Wesley was passionate about family and served on a wide range of boards and committees in a various capacities in order to serve the people, Friday said.
“I first met George as a six-year-old kid the day he came to ask my father for my older sister’s hand in marriage,” he said.
“He listened intently as my father spoke about the significance of marriage. He assured my father that he wanted a good family and that he would care for his wife and then, after my father gave his blessing, they were married.”
They had a child sometime after they were married and, to provide for his young family, Wesley would go out hunting, fishing and trapping, he said.
“He seriously injured his back while lifting his sled after it had gotten stuck when he was out trapping with his dog team on one of his trips,” he said, adding in hindsight the injury could be pin-pointed to a major turning point in Wesley’s life. “For a long time he suffered severe back pain to the point where he could not work, carry anything or even move.”
With pleas from his family ringing in his ears, George finally went to see a doctor who had come to the community on a scheduled trip, Friday said.
“He was ordered to a Toronto hospital for further examination and then put on medication and ordered to bed rest, which lasted for 18 months,” Friday said. “After that time the doctors opted for major surgery to reconstruct his injured spine as the medication was not working.”
It took him a further six months of bed recovery before he was even able to stand.
“George later told me ‘I couldn’t count the number of times I cried about the fates of my daughter and wife because I was powerless to help and provide for them, and because of the excruciating physical pain I felt which was compounded by the overwhelming loneliness of being away from my community,’” Friday said.
No one visited Wesley while he lay abed for two years so he had many hours to contemplate the direction of his life, Friday said.
“No matter how bad his situation became at times, George never gave up,” he said. “He resolved that he was going to pull through and walk out of that hospital.”
Finally the day had come: the doctors came and asked him to lower his feet to the floor from atop the bed.
“When he got up, the blood rushed to his feet because he was getting up for the first time in months and it was too much so he had to lay back down,” Friday said.
While the surgery was eventually declared a success, the metal plates and pins that were installed caused him to walk with a pronounced limp from that day forward.
“I recall walking to the store with him after he came home and he was limping away beside me and he was happy and didn’t complain,” Friday said. “He loved being on the land and so we went out together often to hunt. It was something we always did together.”
However, the biggest change in Wesley came upon his return to the community, Friday said.
“It was at this time he became active and taking on leadership roles first as a band councilor, which he served for three or four terms and then as a chief for one term,” he said.
As he became an experienced leader, he began taking on major leadership roles at the regional level, Friday said.
“He was extremely vocal and passionate about community and family issues,” Friday said.
Not satisfied with the apprehensions of First Nations children into CAS care, Wesley came together with a group of like-minded individuals to found Payukotayno Child and Family Services.
“In the days before Payukotayno, children were taken into non-Native homes and were stripped of their languages and cultures because they were raised away from their people,” Friday said. “George’s vision was to create an organization that would be a family-serving agency where both the parents and their children were helped, and that the children would be able to stay within their communities to ensure their birth languages and cultural practices would continue.”
Noreen Rueben, who has been with Payukotayno since the organization’s inception, said Wesley served on the board from 1984 to September, 1997.
“He provided a very strong voice at all of the meetings, which he never missed,” she said.
Wesley was also among the first to adopt First Nations children, Friday said.
“He loved children and while Mariah is his only biological daughter, he and his wife had adopted and … had a total of eight children whom he absolutely loved,” he said, adding he is also survived by his daughters Ginger, Melanie and Tashina and his sons Sterling, Billy Joe and Irvine. He is pre-deceased by his son Ricardo, who died during a 2006 jail fire in Kashechewan.
That fire led to a 2009 inquest that resulted in 86 recommendations to improve police services throughout NAN territory.
At the conclusion of that inquest, George welcomed the jury’s recommendations saying he wished no other family would have to suffer a loss under similar circumstances as his family had.
Wesley also served on the boards of Nishnawbe Aski Police Service and Wawatay Native Communications Society.
“He was a huge advocate of keeping the language and culture alive and was always willing to provide a helping hand whenever he saw it was needed,” said Mike Hunter, a still-active founding board member of Wawatay Native Communications Society “He was strong in his faith and began all of our meetings with prayer.”
In recent years, Wesley had been actively serving as an advisor to the chiefs on the NAN Elders Council.
Wesley was an advocate of keeping language, culture alive
He also sat at the table of the Mushkegowuk Council chiefs.
“He was a very passionate advocate for working to meet the needs of our community members,” said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Mike Metatawabin. “He understood the concept of self-government and spoke fervently about protecting the futures of our youth and for the provision of appropriate housing for the people.”
In the days before his death, Wesley was suffering from shortness of breath and had complained of having chills.
“Mariah took him to the local clinic where he was suspected of having pneumonia and a possible mild heart attack,” Friday said.
He was medevaced to Timmins and District Hospital where further medical examination revealed he was suffering from kidney failure.
“He was told there was liquid build up in his body that had moved to his lungs causing the pneumonia and that it had also invaded his heart causing the mild heart attack,” Friday said. “He was placed on dialysis and had started to recover after a few days to the point where plans were made to move him into the city for long-term dialysis treatment.”
However, at 4 a.m. on April 9, George Alexander Wesley got up to make his way to the bathroom in the out-patient unit of Timmins and District Hospital when he collapsed with another heart attack.
This one took his life.
He was 64.
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