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First Nations troubadour Willie Dunn’s ashes stolen

Willie Dunn’s baritone voice was compared to Gordon Lightfoot’s.

Willie Dunn asked his family to sprinkle a portion of his cremated remains into the waters around Percé Rock in the Gaspé, a sacred landmark for his Mi'kmaq people and a place where the troubadour spent many hours of his youth.

But Mr. Dunn's request, which he made in the days before he died of cancer last summer, seems likely to go unfulfilled.

The bag of his ashes that was destined for Percé was stolen last Sunday from the small Ottawa apartment of his widow, Liz Moore. And Ms. Moore is not hopeful about getting it back.

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The thief broke in through an unlocked window, apparently in broad daylight. Neighbours saw a strange man skulking around the property on Sunday afternoon.

He did not touch the flat-screen television, or the soapstone carvings, or the stereo equipment, or even Mr. Dunn's cherished blue guitar. All he took was a couple of watches and the sealed bag of ashes.

"It's terrible. I was in a state of shock on Monday," Ms. Moore said on Wednesday after meeting with a detective from the Ottawa police.

"But my daughter Pamela kept bothering me saying, 'We have to let people know. They desecrated my dad's ashes and we have to do something to honour his memory.'"

Mr. Dunn, a musician and filmmaker of Mi'kmaq and Scottish descent who died last Aug. 5 at the age of 71, was a legend in Canadian folksinging circles. His deep baritone was sometimes compared to that of Gordon Lightfoot or Leonard Cohen. But his songs and albums spoke of the historical injustices suffered by First Nations people.

His 1968 short film The Ballad of Crowfoot, which was set to his song of the same name, is considered Canada's first music video. And he was the recipient of many honours, including a lifetime achievement prize at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.

Beside that plaque, in a small shrine created on a shelf of a curio cabinet, Ms. Moore had stored her share of his ashes in a tiny silver heart-shaped box engraved with the words, "Rest in Peace Willie, Love You Always." Her son and her daughter each have another portion. The rest are buried in Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery.

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When she returned late Sunday after a couple of days in Texas, Ms. Moore noticed a bicycle she always parks in front of the cabinet had been moved and the lid had been taken off the box. The bag of ashes had been removed.

Because it was not immediately apparent that the watches had also been stolen, Ms. Moore's first thought was that the thief had come solely for Willie's remains. But she has come around to thinking the culprit mistook it for a baggie of greyish, dark-flecked cocaine.

"If he thought it was drugs and then realized it wasn't drugs," Ms. Moore said, "he probably just stuffed it somewhere. He probably just threw it away."

Ms. Moore said she may have to ask her son and daughter for some of their shares of their father's ashes so she can fulfill his dying wish. It is discomforting, she said, to know a piece of him is lost to her and her family.

Mr. Dunn's daughter, Pamela Dunn, called the swiping of her father's ashes grotesque. "You've got to wonder what was going through these peoples' minds," she said. "It's perplexing."

But Ms. Moore said her husband may have found something amusing in the heist.

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"He had a good sense of humour; he probably would have laughed about this whole thing," Ms. Moore said. "Willie was a very gentle and loving man. He had a really good soul in him."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More


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