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Dreams of travelling the north, helping people and becoming Shamattawa chief all realized

There's rarely a dull moment in the day-to-day life of Shamattawa First Nation Chief Eric Redhead.
shamattawa first nation chief eric redhead
Shmattawa First Nation Chief Eric Redhead, left, met with then interim Manitoba premier Kelvin Goertzen in Thompson in late October.

When I met with Shamattawa First Nation Chief Eric Redhead to sit down and interview him for this story, he was fresh off the heels of an in-person meeting with the then-premier of the province (interim premier Kelvin Goertzen, succeeded last week by Premier Heather Stefanson). How does a kid from Shamattawa get to be in such a position that he would end up on the premier’s agenda? It’s really not that surprising if you know Eric.

I first met him long before he was the chief of Shamattawa, when we were coworkers on the Psychiatric Acute Care Unit at Thompson General Hospital, approximately 15 years ago. And even at that time he was constantly in forward motion and making strides to be more than “just” a kid from Shamattawa.

Eric was born at TGH, delivered by none other than Dr. Alan Rich and lived the first few years of his life in Weyburn, Sask. He says his very first memories are of the move to Shamattawa (where his dad grew up) with his parents and sister.

Growing up in a remote northern community definitely presented its challenges but those same challenges lent a uniqueness to the experience as well. They say that what you grow up with is what you think is normal. But Eric’s normal was a tiny isolated community with no running water and only a woodstove to heat their house. Water was hauled from the river and used for everything from cooking to bathing to washing clothes, and buckets were used as toilets. Their woodstove was not actually a woodstove but a forty-five gallon drum that had been modified for use to heat the house as well as to cook on top of it. Eric’s normal also included growing up in a community where alcoholism thrived and he witnessed it all around him. He witnessed the social problems that both caused and were caused by the alcoholism.

Eric says at the time it felt completely normal not to have running water or a modern stove to cook on or in as everyone around him lived the same way. Now, looking back, Eric chuckles at how they were actually quite lacking for such modern times. “Come on, this was the ’ 90s!”

A water treatment plant was eventually constructed and clean, treated water was then distributed to households via a water truck, (Eric’s father drove the water truck for some time).

During weekends and holidays from school, Eric recalls playing outside a lot of the time “from morning to night” and fishing in the river. Organized extracurricular activities were few and far between at that time. But when Eric was about 10 years old a youth theatre group was formed by Awasis Agency. Eric jumped at the chance to join which allowed him the opportunity to travel with them, performing all the way in Victoria, B.C. and even North Dakota.

Theatre group aside, Eric’s childhood did lack the structure that is so important in a child’s life. When Eric thinks back to those days, despite being surrounded by nature and the vast beauty of the area, it wasn’t all “sunshine and roses.” One traumatic event that stands out in his memory even today was his mom’s disappearance in the middle of winter, when he was around 15 years old. Eric felt something was seriously wrong when his mom didn’t come home and sought out the RCMP to help organize a search for her. Eric’s requests to the RCMP to assist were ignored so Eric and others went looking on their own. She had been gone for a couple of days when Eric came across her inside a cabin in the bush, on Christmas Eve. When Eric kicked the door down he found her trying to start a fire to keep warm, however, unfortunately she lost both of her feet due to frostbite.

At age 16, Eric had to leave his home, his parents and sister, and move to Thompson for high school. He was placed to live with house parents and attended R.D. Parker Collegiate. Eric struggled in school and eventually made his way to Winnipeg where he was able to complete his Grade 12. He became a father at age 18 and relocated back to Thompson with his son and girlfriend (at the time).

Eric’s first job was at TGH as a janitor. Soon after, he was hired as a psychiatric nurse’s aide and then next he held the position for seven years as activity worker on the Psychiatric Acute Care Unit. Eric’s next career move was to a job that very much enjoyed with the then newly developed Mobile Crisis Unit. Eric didn’t stop there and then took a job with Keewatin Tribal Council (KTC) again in mobile crisis. This position meant realizing one of his childhood dreams “travelling the north and helping people.” Eric pursued as much education and training as he could during those years which led him to becoming a trainer and not just a trainee. The courses he became competent in and then provided to other northern communities included Mental Health First Aid, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, safeTALK, Non-Violent Crisis Intervention and more.

Eric was still living in Thompson at this time and career-wise things were flowing smoothly but his personal life took a right turn and Eric decided it was time to return (now with two little kids) back home to Shamattawa. With more than enough experience under his belt, Eric was able to secure a job with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak in crisis intervention and travelled not just the north but the entire province providing support and training. So what was left to accomplish? According to Eric, that was simple. “Growing up, all little Eric really wanted to do was travel the north and help people and become chief.”

So around the age of 30, Eric got the process rolling by running for council in Shamattawa and of course he was voted in. This gave Eric a front row seat into the politics and the work it takes to run and govern a community. When Eric noticed that some of the practices in his community were, in fact, unethical, he decided the best way to straighten things out was for him to run for chief. Eric says at the time he “wanted to make a change for his community, make positive changes and be accountable.” It wasn’t an easy victory when he won enough votes to become chief of Shamattawa as the win was disputed by the former chief and Eric had to take the fight to federal court where he easily won.

Eric is now in his second term as chief of Shamattawa. He’s proud of how far he’s come, the childhood dreams he’s realized and the accomplishments he’s made for his community. Shamattawa boasts a brand new NHL-sized hockey rink. In the past three years, he’s had 44 new homes constructed. A new subdivision is underway and the process has been started for even more new homes through an agreement with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. But Eric’s finest hour was yet to come when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Shamattawa. It was completely new territory for chief and council and Eric had to think (and move) quickly in order to save lives. The community especially struggled due to overcrowding in a lot of the residences. So Eric stepped up to the plate and fought for his community. After many meetings with federal leaders and politicians, in an unprecedented show of support, the Canadian military sent in 55 members along with Red Cross support. When the military arrived last December, nearly a third of Shamattawa’s population had tested positive for the coronavirus. Case counts quickly dropped as the military took over and, within a month, the situation was manageable.

Eric’s “let’s just roll with it and get it done” personality came into play during the COVID-19 crisis when he was interviewed live on the CBC News Network. With no preparation beforehand, Eric had to think on his feet and try to stay calm and focused. Just another tick mark on the wall of accomplishments for this kid from Shamattawa.

There’s rarely a dull moment for Eric during day to day life as chief in Shamattawa. His phone never stops ringing and there are issues/problems to be dealt with all day long in his office. When Eric is out of town his schedule might involve six or seven meetings a day with various bureaucrats, politicians and business partners. The community is and has been dealing with a suicide crisis and Eric’s involvement is on a deeply personal level as he lost his only sister to suicide this past spring. Extra mental health supports such as healing workshops and motivational speakers have been brought to Shamattawa to help the residents cope.

The community of Shamattawa sometimes does get a bad rap but for Eric and his family, it’s just home. Eric is truly proud of his community, he describes the people of Shamattawa as “wonderful, caring, resilient and very welcoming.” The scenery around Shamattawa is “majestic.” Eric wonders what’s left to do both personally and career-wise as the childhood goals he set for himself have been realized. “I should have dreamed bigger.” No doubt we haven’t seen the last of the moves Eric Redhead is going to make in his career. It’s not like him to stay still and I’ve no doubt we’re only going to see bigger and better things ahead for this kid from Shamattawa.

Carla Antichow, who lives in Thompson, is a nurse, a mother to three teenagers and most recently a devoted “grandma” to a six-month-old golden retriever.