Even in death Billy Diamond still had the ability to hold a crowd in thrall. The moment came early during the funeral service, at the end of a hastily cut film celebrating the man’s many achievements. “I told my sons what I want written on my headstone,” he said in his famous booming voice, “Gone to a meeting.”
With that, the crowd burst into laughter, rose and applauded loudly and in unison for what seemed like minutes. The witticism delivered from beyond the grave set the tone for the day’s proceeding.
They came from miles around and filled a hall to way past its legal capacity. There were three busloads from surrounding Cree communities; eight full Dash-8 charters and others driving in. Also present, a delegation from Quebec City and mayors from bordering towns.
Four columns of seats, 24 rows deep and 8 spaces wide. A line of some 30 onlookers filled the darkened balcony. Lining the rear wall some 40 plus joined the who’s who of the Cree world seated up front. The large immediate family in mourning filled the front rows. A rough count suggested more than 800 souls, here to bury the Cree Nation’s first Grand Chief.
The planes started arriving at eight in the morning. The local Chief and council greeted the arrivals in the airport terminal. A school bus shuttled the visitors to the school for refreshments and rest before the service. Next door in the Gathering Place, the former Chief lay in state. A long line snaked its way down a hallway filled with Diamond’s awards, mementoes, photographs, letters of condolence, a Detroit Red Wings jersey, a medal from his Order of Quebec, another from the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, the black helmet he wore after skull surgery months before. After 15 minutes they entered the hall where the open casket sat. Someone had placed a long strand of braided sweet grass across his chest. A small crowd sat patiently waiting for the service to begin.
In the school gym next door, several tables were lined up and filled with food and drinks. Former Grand Chief Ted Moses waits with his wife and daughter. A delegation from Quebec City shuffled in, looking a bit uncomfortable. A rumour spread that the Premier himself would arrive shortly.
The weather is strange on this day. The morning is bright, sunny and calm. The wind picks up before the start of the service and Ted Moses gets caught in a sandstorm on his short walk to the Gathering Place.
The ceremony begins with a short film. Philip Awashish of Mistissini recalls Billy as “a visionary leader who wanted to change the world to be a better place.” And Billy himself, “We were very good at the physical part of building the Cree nation, we forgot to build on the spirituality.”
Lawyer James O’Reilly is given the task of giving the eulogy. O’Reilly has been trained for years in the nation’s courtrooms to use his voice for maximum effect and he is in complete control. “We called him Billy the Kid when he started out.” Indeed, Billy was a mere boy of 21 when he became Chief of “Rupert House” and 24 when he became Grand Chief. “I don’t know of anybody who did so much in so little time,” continued O’Reilly.
Billy’s boyhood friend and brother-in-arms, Ted Moses is up. Moses gives Billy an affectionate touch as he pauses briefly by the casket. He tells a story of he and his son on a hunt several days before the news of the death broke. They had seen a bear off in the distance and went after it. When they got to the site where the bear had been, they were puzzled that the beast had left no tracks. A sign perhaps, foretelling a loss.
Billy Diamond was known for his wit and humour. Moses tells the story of when Billy was the Grand Chief and the head office was in Val-d’Or. “I got a message from the secretary that he wanted to see me in his office. I walked in and there he was sitting sideways from me. He turned and I saw that he had stuffed his cheeks with Kleenex. He said, ‘I’ll give them an offer they can’t refuse.’ He told me that he hadn’t really had anything to say.” Moses’ voice broke as he recalled his friend’s many accomplishments, ending with. “My best friend, my brother, my mentor.”
Matthew Coon Come informs the gathering that the National Assembly in Quebec City held a minute of silence in the former Chief’s honour and the applause rises again. Coon Come would like to be the orator the late Chief was and he almost reaches those heights with his closing lines. “My Indian friends from India had Mahatma Gandhi, my American friends had JFK, my Afro-American friends had Martin Luther King and my South African friends had Nelson Mandela. My Cree Nation had Chief Billy Diamond.”
Finally, the casket is to be closed and family members surround the man for their final farewells. His brother George leans in for a kiss. His granddaughters from Eastmain are ushered in to bid their goodbyes. Billy’s sister Gertie is heart-broken and all Billy’s son Ian can do is hold her. The youngest son, Philip, weeps. Son Sandy is the picture of sadness. Elizabeth, the widow, is dignified. Missing is Christopher, alone perhaps, in a jail cell far from here. The rest of the Diamond clan is too numerous to mention. Ian, the heir and the family’s pillar, is constantly on the move as he orchestrates his father’s send-off.
Another family moment occurs when John Paul Murdoch, Diamond’s nephew, is called to speak. His voice breaks and cries. Billy was an uncle hard to please. JP draws a huge laugh when he tells the gathering, “Even the geese lined up to get shot because they didn’t want to be yelled at.”
Ian is to say the final prayer. He is the same age his father was when Chief Malcolm Diamond left this world and Billy eulogized him. Billy’s biographer, Roy MacGregor, here for the final chapter of his book, says Ian sounded like Billy did when he spoke of Malcolm.
The rain fell heavy as the service ended and many sheltered in the hall. The parade through the village saw the casket on the back of a pickup. But then the sky cleared, and a full rainbow formed in the Northeast.
The coffin was carried the final distance by friends, family, police officers and acquaintances to the old Anglican cemetery overlooking the Rupert River.
It was a funeral fit for a Chief.