Opinion

William Walter Ahmo was born on Dec. 11, 1975 — one month before me.

William Walter Ahmo was born on Dec. 11, 1975 — one month before me.

We had different lives, but they were intertwined.

His father, who died when he was two years old, was from Crane River, which is next to Peguis First Nation, where my family is from.

His mother comes from Sagkeeng and the well-known Fontaine family — the same background as my daughter. The former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, is his uncle.

Will Ahmo, pictured holding son Emory, died while an inmate at Headingley Correctional Institution on February 14.

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Will Ahmo, pictured holding son Emory, died while an inmate at Headingley Correctional Institution on February 14.

He was Ojibwa (Ahmo means bumblebee) and had close family ties to the bear and wolf clans — also the same as me.

Those are just some of the connections.

In the 1990s, Ahmo was charged with a misdemeanour and appeared in front of my father, Murray Sinclair, when he was still a judge.

Just after that, William’s mother got a job working with my mother.

Even later than that, I worked alongside his brother in the child welfare system.

In the Indigenous world, this basically makes us "cousins."

I even believe one night I met my cousin during our weekly Mama Bear Clan patrols, as part of a large group of men who shared food at the Neeginan Centre. I don’t know for sure.

Here’s what I do know for sure after meeting his family this week: Will was a proud son, brother, and father who raised an incredible young man who is attending the University of Manitoba.

His most important role in life was as a grandson to his grandmother Verna, who taught him about faith and how to pray. Her death in 1989 was so traumatic to him, that it led to many of the troubles he experienced throughout his life.

Will Ahmo, right, with his son Emory.

SUPPLIED

Will Ahmo, right, with his son Emory.

He had a very hard upbringing in a community rife with sexual abuse as a result of residential schools. He witnessed rape, assaults, and much addiction as he grew up.

This led to him suffering from addictions as he tried to cope with the violence. He got into trouble with the law.

It also led to him becoming an uncle to hundreds of people who lived on the streets of Winnipeg and Ottawa.

His son told me a story about how Will got a new jacket as a gift and gave it to someone who lived on the streets the very next day.

One night, Ahmo offered a couple from Poplar River his apartment when they were stranded and broke in Winnipeg.

Almost all the time, his family said, he gave away money to people he thought needed help.

"He told me one time he was worried for our people," his mother, Darlene, explained to me, "and that I should worry about them, not him – even though I always did."

Speaking about his mother, she and I have 45 mutual friends on Facebook, but had never met until I contacted her for this column. I told her I was shocked by the number of connections I had to her son and she said this "happened all the time" with him.

"Everyone seemed to have a story about Will," she said.

Ahmo died on Feb. 14, seven days after an incident with guards at Headingley that resulted in him being rushed to the intensive care unit at Health Sciences Centre.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Ahmo died on Feb. 14, seven days after an incident with guards at Headingley that resulted in him being rushed to the intensive care unit at Health Sciences Centre.

Their last conversation was when Ahmo was in Headingley jail. He told her that guards treated inmates as "less than human" and then — as if knowing what was going to happen — he said to her: "If anything happens to me, I’ll be OK."

"The next thing I know, he’s in hospital," Darlene said, "and no officials will tell us what happened."

Ahmo died on Feb. 14, seven days after an incident with guards that resulted in him being rushed to the intensive care unit at Health Sciences Centre. As a result of COVID-19 restrictions, he couldn't have visitors.

In a statement, the family described the incident as "suspicious" and said: "We have heard disturbing reports about the behaviour of correctional officers prior to his death."

The RCMP is investigating, but the family is demanding an independent investigation and won't make further statements about the incident while they wait for more information.

They shared that Ahmo had suffered serious brain damage that required he be placed on life-support. After doctors told the family he would have no quality of life, they were permitted to visit to say goodbye.

In statement to the media, Manitoba Justice said it recognizes "any death in custody" is serious and requires an investigation but cannot comment until the RCMP concludes its investigation.

Ahmo’s family, in the meantime, states: "Will has been taken from us… We will fight to make sure the truth comes out. We will fight to ensure that the guards who did this to Will, and the ones who failed to protect him, are held accountable for their actions and inactions, and we will fight to make sure that no other family has to go through what we are now going through."

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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