Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Every man is more than just a number

Homeless Hero's uncle to get name on grave

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Wilson Hall's grave in Brookside Cemetery will soon have his name and birth and death dates on the marker instead of just the number 345.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Wilson Hall's grave in Brookside Cemetery will soon have his name and birth and death dates on the marker instead of just the number 345. Photo Store

He had already been to the Free Press News Café looking for me earlier Tuesday evening.

Now it's 9:45 p.m., and Faron Hall, who unabashedly introduces himself as the Homeless Hero when he panhandles, has reached me on my cellphone.

"We have to stop meeting like this" is how the Homeless Hero introduces himself this time.

They're the same words he greeted me with four years ago when I interviewed him after his second Red River rescue of a person in peril.

It was the young Garden Hill First Nation man he couldn't save from drowning on that improbable second occasion when he risked his own life that still haunts him.

Faron has many ghosts that walk and sleep with him on the streets of Winnipeg. Of all those dead relatives and homeless friends, the one he misses most is his mother. She was randomly murdered years ago on north Main Street. More recently, there was the death of his mother's brother.

"It was just like I was burying my mother again," Faron says.

It is the circumstances around his uncle Wilson Hall's death -- in particular, the 63-year-old's burial in a pauper's grave -- that Faron wants to discuss. So I agree to join him at the Robin's Donuts on York Avenue downtown.

The Jets-Oilers season-opening game is playing on the flat screen behind him, but Faron is oblivious. His mood swings abruptly from laughing to weeping and back again. The laughter, like the king-can beer he constantly craves, is his way of coping.

What he wants to know from me is why his homeless uncle's body was in the ground at Brookside Cemetery four months before relatives were informed, and then only when the family filed a missing-person report in early August. Just as importantly, he wants to know why the grave is only marked by a small stone in the ground and the number 345.

Late last month, the day after he was released from jail for breaching a probation order that forbids him to be intoxicated in a public place, Faron went to his uncle's graveside with a traditional offering of tobacco.

"I just stood there and I just looked. All there is is a number. There's just a number."

Faron wonders how many other First Nations people have come to the city, disappeared, and the family never knows they're dead and buried. There's no way of knowing the answer.

But when the curious case of Wilson Hall made the news last summer, the medical examiner's office reported that last year, about 75 bodies were turned over to them when they originally went unclaimed in Manitoba. All were identified, but in only about half the cases were the bodies later claimed by family.

Wilson Hall's death and burial appears to be a unique and troubling blend of both. When the office of the chief medical examiner went looking for the answer to why his next of kin weren't located before he was buried, it found part of the reason rested with the province's welfare system, which didn't provide information to the medical officer's investigator.

And part of the blame rested with office of the chief medical examiner itself.

"On our end, we just made a mistake," a spokesman said. Specifically, not checking the vital statistics branch for Wilson's relatives.

By the time we finished talking, Faron was standing in the doughnut shop parking lot sobbing uncontrollably.

I told him we should go out to see his uncle again. Maybe that would help.

Maybe, I thought to myself, I could help.

That night, deeply depressed, Faron would sleep in a bus shelter near the St. Boniface Hospital.

Wednesday morning, as promised, I picked him up on Provencher Boulevard and we drove out to Brookside Cemetery.

Section 38 is a fresh field of flat markers at the back of the cemetery near the Field of Honour, with its regiments of military headstones.

Number 345 is in a row of 16 graves.

Most are graves paid for by provincial welfare, which doesn't provide for headstone markers. Half the 16 graves are marked by numbers only.

Faron fell sobbing on his uncle's weed-topped grave. There was something healing in it because when we left, he said he felt better.

He may feel even better today when he reads this, because late Wednesday afternoon I spoke with Erik Bardal of Neil Bardal Funeral Centre, who put me in touch with Kelly Larkins of Brookside Memorials. And Kelly has generously offered to place a flat stone marker with a name and different numbers.

Wilson Hall

Born: June 10, 1949.

Died: April 7, 2013.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2013 B1

History

Updated on Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 11:36 AM CDT: Corrects name to Kelly Larkins of Brookside Memorials who has generously offered a flat stone marker.

3:47 PM: Clarifies the medical examiner's office reported that last year, about 75 bodies were turned over to them when they originally went unclaimed. All were identified, but in only about half the cases were the bodies later claimed by family.

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