Thursday, August 20, 2009

Award-winning actor Eric Schweig sees life - and death - imitate art with the passing of Curtis Brick, a homeless man in Vancouver

As award-winning actor Eric Schweig led a column of mourners yesterday to a sunburned patch of grass at Vancouver's Grandview Park (the place where a man called Curtis Brick spent his dying moments) the drama seemed like a movie scene.

Schweig has, in fact, appeared in similar scenes on screen many times.

A carver and actor born in Nunavut, Schweig’s credits track like a highlight reel of First Nations history. He took a star turn opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans and more recently in HBO’s Emmy Award-winning miniseries Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007).

Schweig has also starred in some well-known Canadian TV projects, movies that explored and exposed Canada’s less-than-impressive treatment of its First Nations people; TV movies like One Dead Indian (2006), about the 1995 death of Dudley George, Indian Summer: The Oka Crisis (2006) and Cowboys and Indians: The J.J. Harper Story (2003), a recounting of native leader J.J. Harper’s shooting death by a Winnipeg police officer (an incident that sparked the establishment of Manitoba’s Public Inquiry into the Administration of Justice and Aboriginal People in 1988).

But the scene at Grandview Park was real. And Schweig was there with about 250 others to remember Brick, 46, who died July 29, after spending the day incapacitated and roasting on the park grass. Sick and sweltering for hours in 34C heat, it’s believed nobody came to Brick's aid; his suffering allegedly went unnoticed in the crowded park until Schweig spotted him again, around 4 pm, he says.

The death prompted a call (this morning) for a Coroner’s Inquest into Brick's treatment by emergency workers, at a media conference held by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

And yesterday, BC chief Bob Chamberlin, of the Kwicksutaineuk-Ah-Kwaw-Ah-Mish First Nation, told the crowd assembled at Grandview, “There are too many pieces of information that don't hold together." Activist David Dennis, founder of the Westcoast Warrior Society, also called for action at the memorial.

Some facts about Brick’s death are in dispute, but Schweig has no doubt about the most basic: namely that nobody should die after “baking like a potato” all day, when help, water and people were just steps away.

Schweig says he first noticed Brick lying on the grass asleep on the morning of July 29.

“I saw him lying there with his shirt over his head, and usually the weather will wake up someone who’s crashed out in the park,” says Schweig. “So I figured that’s what would happen. And when I came by around six hours later, he was still there. Except this time, he’s floundering, he’s convulsing on his back and he’s lying in the direct sunlight right over there [on the slope near the sidewalk).

“And I look around and it’s like a bad Fellini movie. There’s a kids’ water area, families are together, and there’s hippies over there playing music and dancing around and this f***ing guy is dying from heat stroke 20 yards from them, and about 50 yards from a water fountain.”

Schweig says he contacted a friend by text message, who in turn called for help. These specifics of the time line are at the heart of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs’ call for an inquest. Those who helped Brick allege that more than 30 minutes passed before Vancouver Fire and Rescue arrived, followed by BC Ambulance workers. Officials dispute that.

“They went to work on him...he was unresponsive. He was choking on his tongue and his tongue was like a dried-up piece of meat from having no water all day,” recalls Schweig. “He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t move.”

Schweig says while trying to help Brick, he gleaned from him that he (Brick) had been drinking Lysol. Schweig says he told firefighters that, hoping that the information would help. A firefighter allegedly replied, “Well, that’s what you get for drinking Lysol,” and spoke dismissively to Schweig.

The familiarity of it was almost too much for Schweig, who says officials too often stick to the same old script of disrespect when they deal with impoverished, poor and often aboriginal homeless folks.

“That’s no way to die,” he says. “I know exactly what’s going to happen almost every time they come along.

“The best EMT I know is a former co-worker from Resource Assistance for Youth in Winnipeg. He used to go around to schools and teach kids about homeless people and make them aware of their needs. He did all these wicked workshops all over Winnipeg and Manitoba. He’s going to be a kick-ass paramedic because he gives a shit and he understands the dynamics of homelessness.”

About six years ago, I interviewed Schweig about his work in Cowboys & Indians. In the film, he played Harper's brother Harry Wood, who spearheaded the campaign for an official review into Harper's wrongful death.

Schweig then said (to me in an interview for CanWest's TV Times), “We’re all from the human family and if there’s other humans getting picked on, we should do something about it - it doesn’t matter what colour they are."

Life, death and art again seemed tragically linked.

Schweig can currently be seen starring in the APTN-CanWest comedy series Cashing In.

(photos: above: Eric Schweig Facebook fan page, below: promotional image, Last of the Mohicans)


Garrioch said...

nice work alison. good to see your work might help make a difference. busy day yesterday!

Alison Cunningham said...

thanks! sure was a busy one, nice to end it sharing a meal with friends!