A small painting of a bear sits on Christa Bruneau-Guenther’s mantel at home. It is the first piece of art she bought from Daniel James Martin four years ago and it now serves as a personal memorial to her late friend.
Martin died on July 28 at the age of 62, following a short battle with stomach cancer.
Some of his last words to Bruneau-Guenther were: "That casket is going to be the most comfortable bed I’ve ever had."
Martin was homeless and met the owner and head chef of Feast Café Bistro in 2015 while he was doing what he often did, selling his artwork to passersby in Winnipeg’s inner city.
"He had one of those art holders and it was all tattered, but he pulled out this piece of artwork that was just beautiful and perfectly white," Bruneau-Guenther said.
At the time, she was preparing to open her restaurant on the corner of Ellice Ave. and Sherbrook St. and offered to buy him a few art supplies so he could make some paintings to hang in the café. Every staff member ended up buying one of Martin’s pieces and he became a regular visitor at the establishment.
"He could’ve had anything he wanted, but he always just had a piece of apple pie with a glass of milk and he would take a piece of bannock to go," Bruneau-Guenther said.
As their friendship blossomed, she started to learn more about Martin’s life.
He was born in Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in southern Manitoba and was placed in residential school when he was eight years old. Martin never returned home and spent years bouncing around different foster homes.
He was 24 when he discovered his artistic talents thanks to a mentor in Selkirk.
Art became his passion and his way of connecting to his Indigenous culture. It also made him a well-known fixture in Winnipeg.
With no family locally, Martin asked Bruneau-Guenther to be his next of kin when he was admitted to hospital as his health worsened. Martin’s final wishes in death were as simple as his wishes in life — all he wanted was a proper funeral.
In Manitoba, the province will cover the cost of basic funeral services for those on income assistance, but Bruneau-Guenther wanted something more for her friend and started a GoFundMe campaign to raise enough money to hold a celebration of life at the church he attended.
"I’m just fulfilling the promise I made to him," she said.
By Monday, the fundraiser had surpassed its goal of $3,250 and dozens of comments had been posted by people who knew Martin and had purchased his art over the years.
He was described as a warm soul and a humble man with an innate talent.
Bruneau-Guenther thought of Martin as a grandfatherly figure who had smiling eyes and a wisdom beyond his 62 years.
"Someone like Daniel blessed me more than I blessed him," she said.
Her hope is that those who hear Martin’s story will consider how they treat others who are living on the street.
"Don’t just walk by those people and pretend they’re not there," she said.
"If people would just open themselves up to people like Daniel, the world would definitely be a better place.
"He was a very kind man and he just wanted to have a friend."
Anyone who knew Martin is invited to attend a public service and luncheon for him at 11 a.m. on Aug. 15 at First Lutheran Church, 580 Victor St. Extra funds raised will be donated to the Salvation Army and Main Street Project, where Martin lived for many years.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.