Sister of B.C. man who died outdoors in sub-zero temperatures remembers her brother's kindness

Richard Nelson was found dead in a tent in a homeless encampment in Terrace, B.C., on Dec. 22, 2022. (Submitted by Diana Guno - image credit)
Richard Nelson was found dead in a tent in a homeless encampment in Terrace, B.C., on Dec. 22, 2022. (Submitted by Diana Guno - image credit)

Diana Guno remembers her younger brother Richard Nelson as the brave one of her siblings, saying he earned a few scars growing up — whether it was from falling off a swing set or getting a fish hook caught in his ear lobe.

Guno says the 54-year-old, a member of the Kitsumkalum Band and part of the Tsimshian Nation, is the man who was found dead in a tent in a homeless encampment in Terrace, B.C., on Dec. 22.

The night before, RCMP said temperatures dropped below –20 C, and investigators said the death is not considered suspicious.

Guno thinks Nelson left his bed at a local shelter to check on some of his friends who were sleeping outside.

"People knew him to be very caring," she said in an interview, adding that Nelson had a booming voice and a reputation for sticking up for other people living out on the street.

"You'd know it was him. You could hear him a block away."

Terrace social service agencies and Indigenous groups say Nelson was a familiar, friendly figure on downtown streets.

"We are very sad to hear of his passing. Our hearts go out to his family, friends, and all who knew him in the community,"  said Vicky Serafini, communication specialist with Terrace's Ksan Society, in a statement to CBC News.

Serafini said there was space for Nelson at the shelter the night before he died.

"Our shelter spaces are accessible 24/7, and during extreme weather, we always ensure we have sufficient overflow capacity for those seeking shelter," she wrote. "Individuals will sometimes choose not to access the shelter."

Struggles with alcohol

Guno says she and Dickie ran into each other at the mall the day before he died. They had planned to get together to mark the ninth anniversary of their mother's death on Dec. 23. Each of them said "I love you" during their goodbyes.

"That was the very last thing he said to me."

Guno says Nelson struggled with alcoholism and had sought help to get sober on multiple occasions.

Submitted by Diana Guno
Submitted by Diana Guno

Before he was out on the streets, Nelson was married and had a daily routine in an apartment he shared with his wife. But Guno says being separated from his wife's grandchildren and losing his parents caused him a great deal of sadness. That started a spiral of drinking, which led to Nelson and his wife splitting up and, ultimately, a life of homelessness.

Sean Bujtas, who was recently elected as Terrace's Mayor, also knew Nelson and described him as a friendly guy.

Bujtas remembers Nelson yelling, "Hey, Mayor!" when the two crossed paths in a Tim Horton's shortly after October's municipal election.

He wants the provincial and federal governments to provide Terrace with more resources to help deal with the complex issues of those facing homelessness, mental health problems and addictions.

"We're failing these folks," he said. "We're failing them on all levels."

Waiting for closure

The B.C. Coroners Service has told Guno that a backlog of cases is delaying their investigation into her brother's death.

She and her family are waiting for the coroner to release Nelson's body so they can plan a funeral and have a traditional ceremony to mark his passing.

"We were taught that we need to respect everyone, even the dead," she said.