Bill Shead was born in 1939 in the old Selkirk General Hospital on Idell Avenue. He was the eldest of seven siblings. Their parents Harry and Ruth (nee Asham) instilled them with pride in their Cree ancestry and identity. Bill’s father, and four other family members served in the Navy during WWII. They and Bill’s summer experience as a 13-year-old Canteen Boy aboard the SS Keenora sailing Lake Winnipeg fueled Bill’s ambitions to be a naval officer.
Bill joined Boy Scouts, and later Sea Cadets. In 1952 he was one of the first Queen Scouts in Manitoba. He was a member rifle team of the local Sea Cadet Corp, RCSCC Daerwood, that twice won the Hunt Memorial Trophy as the best rifle team in the Dominion of Canada. Later, while at CMR, he was the College Marksman – the best marksman at the college.
On graduating from grade eleven in June 1956 he applied to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) under the Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP) and accepted a placement at College Militaire Royal de St. Jean (CMR). Bill spent three years at CMR and then went into the Navy, training full time.
After completing the Lieutenant’s Qualifying Courses in June 1960, he joined HMCS Fort Erie. He was immediately sent to HMCS St. Croix to lead a Special Escort of 15 Indigenous members of the RCN for a presentation ceremony in Portsmouth, England. The RCN Gunnery Branch had commissioned the renowned Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) carver Mungo Martin to create a totem pole (known as Hosaqami) as a gift to the Royal Navy (RN) for fifty years of RCN training at HMS Excellent. Over the following six decades plus, Bill and Hosaqami were to ‘cross paths’ several times culminating in a 2012 ceremony at Government House for Hosaqami and the pole raising of Hosaqami II.
Adventures at Sea
On his return to HMCS Fort Erie Bill completed his sea training and received his Bridge Watchkeeping Certificate. He was the ship’s Navigating Officer on a four-month deployment to West Africa. He was then posted to HMCS Buckingham. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Buckingham and the rest of RCN’s Atlantic fleet were ordered to sail to their War Stations. In fall 1963, he was posted to the Naval Reserve Division HMCS York in Toronto as the Resident Staff Officer Cadets. Bill took a night course at York University during the academic years. In the summer Bill trained Naval Cadets at sea in various ships until May 1966 when he was posted to Halifax to command the coastal patrol vessel HMCS Loon.
In May 1967, Bill was appointed as Canadian Liaison Officer in the Royal Yacht, HMY Britannia during the Royal Visit of the Queen and Prince Phillip and, later, the Queen Mother. Prior to joining Britannia in England, Bill toured the ports in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland that Britannia would be visiting. The Queen and Prince Phillip’s visits to Kingston, Montreal, and Expo 67 were the highlight of the Royal Tours. The Queen Mother’s tour of the Atlantic provinces was more relaxed and somewhat informal. Britannia’s crew, including the Canadian crew, staged a ‘theatre night’ which was well received by the Queen Mother, her personal staff, and the crew.
Russ Moses, a Delaware from Six Nations of the Grand River, and Naval Veteran of the Korean War, whom Bill met four years earlier at Toronto conference, was Deputy Commissioner of the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67. Russ obtained a Six Nations Condolence Cane that the Canadian contingent presented to Britannia on completion of their time in the ship. Bill left the Royal Yacht in Portsmouth returning to Dalhousie University. After graduation in May 1968, he joined the destroyer HMCS Restigouche.
In September 1969, Bill was posted to the Long Operations Course at the Fleet School in Halifax. While on course, he passed all the written exams to qualify for destroyer command. In June 1970, Bill was appointed to HMCS Gatineau as the Operations Officer. Bill passed Destroyer Command Board making him eligible for an appointment to command at sea. Gatineau’s planned participation in a new international naval exercise off Hawaii (RIMPAC 1971) was cancelled. In lieu, Bill was assigned to the staff of Admiral Drovers in HMAS Melbourne, the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) aircraft carrier for the RIMPAC Exercise.
Bill was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander and was to attend Staff College in 1972. That appointment was delayed until 1973, as Gatineau participated in RIMPAC 1972 in September with port visits to Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand returning to Esquimalt a week before Christmas 1972. Bill and Lynn Nickerson were on 21 May 1973 in Hubbards, NS. They moved to Toronto in September 1973 where Bill attended Staff College. On graduation from Staff College in June 1974 Bill was posted to National Defense Headquarters (NDHQ) in Ottawa.
Another chance encounter with Russ Moses in Ottawa led to a unique assignment. Russ convinced Public Service Commission of Canada (PSC) Commissioner Irene Johnson that Bill should join the PSC to lead the Office of Native Employment (ONE). Subsequently Bill was seconded to the PSC from 1975 to 1977. His role was to develop a policy document to increase Native Employment in the Public Service of Canada. Barney Danson, then Minister of National Defense, had developed a special interest in Bill because of his work in ONE.
After serving in NDHQ and completing his secondment to the PSC in 1977 Bill’s next posting was as the Squadron Combat Officer for the 5th Canadian Destroyer Squadron out of Halifax. In preparation for this new position, he was sent to HMS Dryad in Portsmouth England to take the Maritime Tactical Course. All the while, parties outside the Navy courted him to join them to work in the equal employment opportunities field and on other areas relating to Indigenous people. He put off making an immediate decision, and in January 1978, he joined the Squadron and sailed in HMCS Huron for exercises in Puerto Rico. There the Minister of National Defence, Barney Danson, encouraged Bill to run in the federal election expected later that year. Bill also had a firm offer to be the Employment Manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northern Stores Department.
In coming to his decision to leave the Navy, Bill weighed what his career opportunities might be if he stayed in the Navy and how that might affect his family life. Daughters Ashly and Ruth were born in Ottawa in 1975 and 1977. Lynn and Bill had already moved and lived in four different cities in three provinces since they were married five years earlier. With young children, Bill believed the nomadic life of a naval officer would not be beneficial for his family.
In May 1978, Bill went to Manitoba to start his employment with the Bay and to find a home. Lynn, Ashly, and Ruth joined him in November. Bill did not abandon the Navy entirely. He joined the Naval Reserve serving in HMCS Chippawa until 1992. He commanded several of the Navy’s minor warships assigned for training members of the Naval Reserve on periodic weekends & two-week periods in the summers.
Politics proved to be exhilarating, satisfying, but frustrating. In ignorance or naivety, he chose to run in his home riding where the party had not held the seat for over 30 years. Although losing, the campaigns built up the membership and finances. Building on the 1979 and 1980 campaigns, the riding association did win seats in future provincial and federal elections. In the fall of 1980 Bill was elected mayor of Selkirk serving to 1983.
While mayor, Bill also held positions as a Director of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and Vice President of the Manitoba Association of Urban Municipalities. During Selkirk’s 1982 Centennial the Town hosted visits by Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne, and the Tenth Earl of Selkirk. In the 1980 Municipal Election all six town councillors were elected by acclamation. Bill and the incumbent were the only candidates for Mayor. During his term in office, Bill encouraged others to pursue public office. In the 1983 election there were 12 candidates for the six councillors’ positions and five candidates for the mayor’s office.
In the fall of 1983, Bill became the CEO Indian Business Development Group (IBDG), a small not-for-profit organization that made loans to small Indigenous businesses. IBDG established the Kirkness Adult Learning Centre (KALC) in 1984. Inflation and record high Interest rates led to the closure of IBDG 1986, although KALC continued to operate independently for several years afterwards.
From 1986 to 1992 Bill was Prairie Regional Director General of Veterans Affairs Canada and was responsible for the delivery of benefits and services to Veterans living in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. He led a professional staff located in a Regional Office, six District Offices and two Veterans Homes. From 1987 to 2009 he volunteered as Vice-President & Director, Me-Dian Credit Union providing banking and financial services to an Indigenous membership.
Faced with making a career decision to accept a new posting in the Public Service of Canada and relocation to another province, Bill again assessed the impact that a move would have on his family – especially his children who were beginning to enter their final years of school. He decided to retire from the Public Service to pursue other options in the local area. Bill focused his activities on volunteer service to Indigenous people, Veterans, his community, and church.
In January 1993, Bill became the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg Inc. (ACWI) – serving in that role until 1997. As the Centre’s first CEO, Bill was responsible for planning and overseeing the restoration and renovation of the former Canadian Pacific Railway Station – a National Historic Site with 80,000 square feet of office space. After 1998, Bill joined the ACWI Board of Directors becoming the Board’s Chair in 2002 and serving in that role until 2023. During Bill’s thirty years with the Centre its property values increased to over $15 Million. It generates annual operating revenue of $1 Million and is mortgage free.
His role at ACWI, now Neeginan Centre, led to a deeper involvement in Indigenous training and education. He joined the Board of the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development (CAHRD) in 2005 serving as Vice-Chair. Bill also accepted an invitation to join the Board of Director of the Canadian Native Arts Foundation (CNAF) in1996. CNAF had just assumed responsibility for administering the $1.1 million National Aboriginal Veterans Scholarship Fund (NAVST) funded by the Government of Canada. This new responsibility broadened the scope of CNAF which led to a name change to the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (NAAF). After a 2012 branding exercise another name change ensued to Indspire. From 1996 to 2022 Indspire distributed over $217 Million in scholarships and bursaries to over 67,000 Indigenous students pursing post- secondary education.
Bill’s other Indigenous volunteer activities included being a Board Member of the Host Society for the 2002 North America Indigenous Games, a Director of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and a member of the Indigenous Council of Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land. As well, from 2016 he was Co-Chair of the Committee to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the 1817 Peguis Selkirk Treaty. In early 2023 the Committee transformed itself into the Friends of the Peguis Selkirk Treaty, a not-for-profit corporation, to erect a Treaty Monument of Chief Peguis on the grounds of Manitoba’s Legislative Building in the fall of 2024.
In 2001 Bill assisted in acquiring the original medals of the late Sergeant Tommy Prince, one of the most decorated Indigenous Veterans in Canada. As volunteer speaker for the Memory Project since 2010, he speaks to schools, universities, churches, and community groups on Veterans and their service in and out of uniform. He is a Governor of the Manitoba Division of the Canadian Corp of Commissionaires (from 2005).
Some of Bill’s volunteer service to the broader Manitoba society included seven years as Lay Bencher of Law Society of Manitoba 1984-1991; Warden & Chair of the Building Committee for Christ Church Selkirk 1996-2001; Director and, later Chair Board of Directors, St Boniface General Hospital 1996-2003; Public Councillor, College of Physicians and Surgeon of Manitoba 2002-2010; Member Board of Governors, Canadian Red Cross Society 2004-2008; and Member Board of Director, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra 2010-2012.,