Oshki-Giizhig founder leaves lasting legacy


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This article was published 21/01/2022 (427 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Grant Duncan burst into the minister’s office, took a seat and launched into his pitch — this is why people need Oshki-Giizhig, he explained.

The intrusion jolted Kerri Irvin-Ross, the former NDP MLA, then minister of the department of families; her assistant had told Duncan and his soon-to-be co-founder Eric Friesen to wait in reception until the minister was ready.

It had been an uphill battle even to gain the minister’s ear that day in 2015, Friesen said. Nobody seemed to see the need for an organization like Oshki-Giizhig, which supports Indigenous people with FASD and other disorders, or else, nobody seemed willing to pony up the cash. But there they were, and Duncan had shouldered past reception.

“‘That’s the first time somebody has barged into my office,’” Friesen recalls Irvin-Ross saying. “She said: ‘I love it.’”

Duncan’s conviction and sincerity, his drive to heal traumas and the depth of his empathy weave through the remembrances that drift as sacred smoke from the lips of his friends and loved ones. They are the themes of a life story that ended too soon, on Dec. 3, when Duncan died at age 65.

His heart gave out. Perhaps it was overworked as he clambered upward, trying mightily to lift a community as he went.

So he did. He uplifted more than most ever do.

“He was so brave. He was so courageous. He was passionate and truly believed in what we were doing. And now we provide supports to over 150 people; we employ 70 people, the majority of them Indigenous,” Friesen said. “None of this would’ve happened if it wasn’t for Grant… He was the heart and spirit of Oshki-Giizhig.”

Supporting an Indigenous community with intellectual or cognitive disabilities, a demographic overrepresented in the court system, Duncan saw more than histories, he saw humanity. He pushed for Indigenous-language programming and for spiritual and cultural activities. He lobbied government for funding and, said several people around him, brought to that world of committees and bureaucracy the same direct and unpretentious attitude he took when chatting with his programs’ participants. He not only supported community, he built it. And he left an indelible mark on those around him.

“Through Grant, I found something that I actually love to do,” said Bobby Desjarlais, a close friend of Duncan’s who co-runs two homeshares where Oshki-Giizhig participants live. “Grant was my mentor, and he is a large reason why my family is taken care of right now. And I told him that.”

When Desjarlais left the hospital, knowing he’d peered onto Duncan’s face for the last time, he got in his car and drove directly to a homeshare.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” he said. “I wanted to go see the boys, and I wanted to cook some food, and I cooked a big meal and ate with them.”

Marlene Roche was Duncan’s partner. They were together for about 20 years. Roche reflected on her partner’s work, love and admiration hanging in the corner of each word like a tear about to fall. 

“He was so very proud of the clean babies that were born for clients that he had… no alcohol was involved at all, no FASD. It was stopping the cycle,” she said.

She then addressed words to him directly, to his spirit, which she believes has yet more lives to live.

“I’m so impressed by the impact you’ve had on the world… you’re coming back,” she said. “You’re coming back to do more. I love you dearly. We deeply, deeply loved each other.”

Some at Oshki-Giizhig said in the days since Duncan died, it’s been as though the “fire in his belly” has spread throughout the organization. A desire to carry on his work has threaded through the place and pressed them forward. His work barges on.

Perhaps his spirit refused to wait at the door.

Cody Sellar

Cody Sellar
Community Journalist

Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review West. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies. Email him at cody.sellar@canstarnews.com or call him at 204-697-7206.

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