Sunday January 07, 2018

Meet the brave women patrolling Regina's toughest neighbourhood

These pills were among the dozen found by the White Pony Lodge patrol on a snowy sidewalk. Their street value is a couple of hundred dollars.

These pills were among the dozen found by the White Pony Lodge patrol on a snowy sidewalk. Their street value is a couple of hundred dollars. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Listen 28:48

By David Gutnick

It's 6 p.m. on a cold Friday evening. Outside, the temperature hovers around -20 C.

Eight women sit in a circle in a bare-bones office in a nondescript building on 5th Avenue in downtown Regina, smack in the middle of a neighbourhood called North Central. Eleven thousand residents live in the surrounding blocks, in rundown apartment buildings and small houses on tiny lots, squeezed in between two sets of railway tracks.

One in two residents in North Central is Indigenous. The unemployment rate is more than 20 per cent — three times higher than in the rest of Regina. One in three families lives below the poverty line.

The women pass around a saucer piled with smouldering dry sage.

When the smudge reaches Shawna Oochoo, she waves smoke over her head and her body, right down to her feet, "so I am always walking in a good way and on that good path," she says.

Regina homicide 2016  Joshua Michael Harden

The murder of Joshua Harden in Regina's North Central neighbourhood in 2016 triggered the patrol movement set up by Shawna Oochoo. (Brian Rodgers)

The women cleaning up North Central 

A decade ago, Maclean's called North Central "Canada's worst neighbourhood."

Regina city officials were furious and embarrassed by the article. In the intervening years, millions of dollars have been invested in housing, social programs and schools.

But North Central still has more drug busts, sexual assaults and gang violence than any other Regina neighbourhood, and gun-related crime is growing.

Many residents won't leave their homes after dark, for fear of being robbed or beaten.

City of Regina Crime Stats

North Central is the neighbourhood with the most crime in the city of Regina, according to Regina Police statistics from 2016. (Regina Police Service)

But Shawna Oochoo will.

On this Friday, just like every Friday and Saturday night, the 34-year-old mother of a teen and a toddler leads volunteers to patrol the sidewalks and back alleys of the neighbourhood she grew up in.

They call themselves the White Pony Lodge, a name that came to Oochoo's friend and mentor, Cree elder Archie Weenie, in a dream.

Like the hero astride a white horse, they set out into the darkness. But they're on foot. This is not about catching criminals. They are the neighbourhood's scouts and its clean-up crew. Their goal is to make North Central a more decent place to live.

The volunteers zip up their parkas, slip on fluorescent safety vests, grab flashlights and other items they will need over the next three hours — walkie-talkies, pens and clipboards, tongs and a pail for the used syringes or rigs they find, a first-aid kit stocked with naloxone, and coupons for free coffee.

"It is painful to know that our people have the potential to do that to our own people." - Leticia Racine 

Walking Bear Woman

Tonight, the volunteers are all women — Jan Morier, who writes a community newsletter, Sandra Ball, a nurse, Trina Lathlin, a lab assistant, Joan McDonald a teacher, Mary Arpin who is retired, Mariel Harvey who is a real estate agent, and Leticia Racine, a stay-at-home mom. They range in age from their mid-20s to early 70s.

Shawna Oochoo

Shawna Oochoo is the co-founder and president of White Pony Lodge and patrol co-ordinator. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

Oochoo started White Pony Lodge in her living room with a couple of friends in 2016. A young North Central man had just been murdered by a group of teens and young men.

Along with other community members unsettled by the killing, Oochoo participated in a sweat ceremony led by Archie Weenie. The elder listened to Oochoo's concerns about her neighbourhood and suggested that her Cree-Saulteaux name — Walking Bear Woman — might give her a direction.

Oochoo went to Winnipeg and participated in a street patrol organized by the Bear Clan there. Within weeks, she was back home in Regina, and the White Pony Lodge was born.

Winnipeg Bear Clan Patrol

Oochoo draws inspiration for the White Pony Lodge from the Bear Clan Patrol, shown here walking in Winnipeg's North End to assist in searches for the missing. (CBC)

Oochoo is a natural leader who combines toughness and intensity with an easy charm and infectious laugh.

By knocking on a lot of doors, she managed to cobble together rent for the office space on 5th Avenue, just a stone's throw from the corner where she first got high and turned her first trick.

"We are not second-level cops. What we want to do is encourage better lifestyles and a better environment." - Shawna Oochoo

The White Pony Lodge patrollers turn south on Angus Street, and we approach that very corner.

They don't miss a thing —  a heap of garbage, a mess of broken window glass, a burned-out street light beside a vacant lot.

They record it all so that when the night is over, they can report what they find to the people or agencies that will take action.

A skinny teenager stands on a corner, her jean jacket wide open. She makes eye contact with men as they slowly drive by.

White Pony Lodge

Patrollers often find knives, including homemade shivs, on the ground in North Central. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Oochoo points down a dark alley. This is where she was first paid for sex. She was in grade six.

"I was 13 years old," she says. "My sister actually started working before me, and it made me sad to know that she was working the streets to feed me."

"We were just kids. Anything could have happened."

"I am Walking Bear Woman; I walk these streets, and that is who I've become." - Shawna Oochoo

'We have the experience'

The volunteers all have a story.

Leticia Racine is 41 and the mother of four. When she was younger, she became addicted to morphine and ended up homeless.

One night she was raped by four members of an Indigenous street gang.

"A gang member told me they were going to take me out out of the city and kill me," she said. "I could have easily been a missing, murdered Aboriginal woman."

"Now that I'm clean and sober, I just have an innate desire to help."

She does a lot of that. Before showing up for patrol this evening, Racine was invited by Oochoo to talk about her experiences at a high school class in a comfortable Regina suburb. She held an eagle feather. Her stories left the teens and their teachers in tears.

Now, just hours later, Racine is holding a pair of tongs as long as her arm, to safely pick a couple of used syringes out of the snow.  

White Pony Lodge

Patrols pick up needles and other drug paraphernalia, such as arm bands. (Stephanie Taylor/CBC)

She says that many in the community welcome the patrollers with open arms.

"We don't have [police] badges, but we have the experience and the same colour of skin. Sometimes that doesn't make a difference, but in the 'hood it does. It just does," she says.

'Not second-level cops'

By 7:45 p.m., even though they are dressed warmly, the White Pony Lodge patrollers are starting to shiver.   

Oochoo digs into her jeans and pulls out a handful of free coffee coupons. Time for a pit stop.

The local McDonald's is a North Central hangout, and regulars know how to read the room — who is safe, who to avoid, who's wearing black, who's wearing red: each gang has its colours.

Oochoo is right at home, standing by the door smiling like an unofficial greeter.

"We don't have [police] badges, but we have the experience and the same colour of skin." - Leticia Racine

A confident-looking man in a black leather jacket sits at a corner table pecking away on his cell phone. A steady stream of people walk over to him, lean in, say a few words, hand over money, get something in return and leave.

It's obvious he's up to no good. "Call me Max," he says.  

We talk in the parking lot. He says what he is up to is "simply business." He knows about the White Pony Lodge Patrol and says that he thinks it is a good idea. He says because they are not a vigilante group, they are in no danger.

If the White Pony Lodge volunteers want to make a real difference, he says, they have to work with young people because, "they are the ones taking over."

He has seven sons, Max says, and he does not want them to "become like me."

"The Aboriginal gangs, they don't mess around," Leticia Racine tells me later when I recount my conversation with Max. "These guys are like drug dealers. These guys put girls out in the streets."

"It is painful to know that our people have the potential to do that to our own people."

White Pony Lodge

Patrollers record all the items they come across and report what they find to appropriate agencies. (White Pony Lodge/Facebook)

Back outside, in a back alley, Oochoo points to the gang graffiti battling it out on garage doors and fences. She understands what it means.

"There is a history behind it, for sure," she says. "Whoever has more power within their groups has more control of the neighbourhood or of the streets."

We walk up Retallack Street and stop in front of a house. The doors look as if they've been ripped off their hinges, the windows blown out.  

While the other patrollers shine their flashlights inside, Oochoo pulls out her cell phone. She's got the police on speed dial.

She explains what she's looking at, and the police dispatcher promises to send a car immediately.

Shawna Oochoo has a respectful relationship with Regina Police Services — patrolling officers know what the White Pony Lodge patrollers do, and they respect their work in the community. Oochoo makes it clear to everyone that their work has nothing to do with vigilantism or working for authorities.

abandoned house regina north central august 2016

Last year, White Pony Lodge cleaned up at least 100 needles, knives and condoms from vacant properties in North Central. (White Pony Lodge/Facebook)

Knowing the police are on the way, the patrollers move on, walking west on Dewdney Avenue, then right on Garnet Street.

"We are the boots on the ground," says Oochoo. "We're not out here to stop drug dealers or anything like that. We are not second-level cops. What we want to do is encourage better lifestyles and a better environment."

'Our people are lost'

Three hours after starting out, the patrollers are back at the White Pony Lodge office.

While a pot of sausage-and-barley soup is heated up, Racine carefully dumps the used syringes into a pail. Red and blue hydromorphone pills found scattered on a snowbank will be handed over to a specialized non-profit agency which will dispose of them.

White Pony Lodge

Some of the White Pony Lodge volunteers return from a Friday evening patrol. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Oochoo pulls a fruit crate-sized box out of a closet to show me the contents.

Over the past few months, patrollers have found more than a dozen weapons, knives and shivs of all sizes, including a 10-centimetre-long blade taped to the end of a hockey stick with the name of a gang written on the side. They will all be turned over to police.

As one of the volunteers doles out soup, Archie Weenie, the Cree elder, walks in the door.

He saw the lights were on.

Weenie downs a bowl of soup and then gathers the White Pony Lodge volunteers into a circle.

Another sage smudge is passed around.

"We give thanks for the White Pony Lodge," Weenie says. "Our people are lost."

"Imagine if they opened up and started listening from their hearts: they would not be in this rut."

As the smoke from the burning sage fills the room, Weenie prays in Cree.

White Pony Lodge

White Pony Lodge was started in 2016 after a young North Central man was murdered by a group of teens and young men. (White Pony Lodge/Facebook)

Oochoo thinks about why she is devoting so much of her time to a project that brings her little income and no security, walking the streets of North Central, where she grew up.

She is university-educated now, working towards a certificate of reconciliation studies at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina. 

Oochoo could be doing something else. She could leave the 'hood like some of her friends have, to raise their families in safer places.

But there is no way she is going to follow. There is too much work to do in North Central.

"It all makes sense," says Oochoo.

"I am Walking Bear Woman: I walk these streets, and that is who I've become."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full documentary.