Edmonton·In Depth

'This is about prayer': Inside Edmonton's Camp Pekiwewin

Camp Pekiwewin is pushing Edmonton toward a public reckoning with the policing of homelessness as organizers rally behind their list of demands.

River valley encampment has 170 tents helped by army of volunteers

Jeremy Samuel McFeeters didn't plan to stay at Camp Pekiwewin for long, but he says a sense of community has left him committed to homeless encampments survival. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

Jeremy Samuel McFeeters thought he'd stay at Camp Pekiwewin for a night, maybe a few nights at most. 

Homeless for two years, McFeeters got used to camping alone in the river valley, out of sight of bylaw officers.

But when he arrived at the sprawling homeless encampment in the heart of Rossdale late last month, he found a community.

"We're family here," said McFeeters, who is Dene and Cree, and affectionately called Uncle Jerry by people around camp. "Being here shows everybody that we can stand together and help each other." 

Pekiwewin, Cree for "coming home," was set up by frontline workers and Indigenous-led community organizers before sunrise on July 24. By the end of that day, a dozen tents dotted the green space across from Re/Max Field.

Plans for the camp had been in the works for weeks, but organizers say they took on added urgency when the city announced it was closing a temporary day shelter at the Expo Centre without an immediate backup plan.

The city's overnight shelters regularly have empty beds, but day shelter spaces in Edmonton are limited compared to what was offered at Expo, especially as agencies tighten capacity under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pekiwewin has since grown to roughly 170 tents with around 400 people passing through every day for food and services offered by a legion of volunteers, from inner-city outreach workers to healthcare workers. 

The camp's visibility and profile is pushing Edmonton toward a reckoning with the policing of homelessness, against a background of deepened inequalities brought on by the pandemic.

"[Pekiwewin] is what happens when there is a failure of government but a success of the people," Coun. Aaron Paquette tweeted on the weekend, saying the city's requests for provincial and federal money to build permanent supportive housing have gone unmet.

People sleeping rough in Edmonton are regularly displaced from encampments by authorities. Concerns with the shelter system are well documented.

Organizers say the camp is a direct response to the levels of police violence they say homeless communities face on a regular basis. The camp has rallied behind a list of demands, including calls to abolish anti-camping bylaws, make transit free, and defund the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) by $39 million while redirecting that money to supports for homeless people.

"We're radicalizing the notion of what it takes to provide supports to people that are houseless by taking their dignity seriously … we're here until our demands are looked at and met," said volunteer Shima Robinson, an organizer with Black Lives Matter YEG. 

Life at Pekiwewin

The kitchen is abuzz in the mornings as people get coffee and snacks, and then later in the afternoon for the daily meal serving. Volunteer outreach workers connect with campers and a medic attends to any emergencies.

People stop by the welcome tent for hand sanitizer and masks. The donation tent, stocked with supplies and warm clothes, is open throughout the day. 

The teepee lies at the heart of Camp Pekiwewin, which was set up by Indigenous-led community groups including Beaver Hills Warriors and Treaty 6 Outreach. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

The location is a recognition of the neighbourhood's history. Rossdale has been an important gathering place for Indigenous people for thousands of years and is the site of traditional burial grounds.

At the centre of camp is the teepee, the first structure erected on site, with a warrior flag waving atop the wooden poles. Elders lead prayer and ceremonies around a sacred fire lit outside the teepee's canvas.

"The whole operation is kind of dependent on the teepee," said Veronica Fuentes, an organizer with Beaver Hills Warriors who is part-Saulteaux and part-Salvadoran.

"It sets a tone that this isn't necessarily a protest, this is about prayer, this is also about creating community — rekindling a lot of kinships that might have been sleeping for a while." 

Security and conflict de-escalation is handled by The Crazy Indian Brotherhood, many of whom are former gang members looking to better themselves and reconnect with their Indigenous roots. 

Members of the Crazy Indian Brotherhood, who help with camp security and de-escalation, say the name of the group is a reclamation of the colonial stereotypes about "uncivilized" Indigenous people. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

At the medical tent people can find toothpaste, menstrual products, first-aid supplies and a range of drug paraphernalia. The camp maintains a harm-reduction approach to drug use. 

Kaela Siewert, a former EMT who transitioned into housing and justice work, has been at the camp every day as the medic. She says Pekiwewin has seen around five overdoses a week, all successfully reversed. Other campers often help her respond.

"We're here as a collective community caring for one another," she said. "It's kind of a neat thing that speaks to our community."

Siewert said Alberta Health Services' community paramedics and mental health teams come by at least once a week to provide other medical support and fill prescriptions. 

Allegations of tent slashing

But organizers say the catalyst behind the camp comes back to the way police interact with homeless populations, especially through the displacement of encampments.

"What outreach workers were consistently coming across and finding were tents slashed — community members reporting that as well — and in some spots even tents were also pepper-sprayed," said camp volunteer Joel Frost, an outreach worker who has worked with inner-city agencies for the past eight years.

"For a lot of us, that's why we're here and that's why the conversation got started." 

Joel Frost, an outreach worker, says he was motivated to volunteer because of what he calls the levels of police violence facing homeless communities. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

Jared Tkachuk, director of programs at Boyle Street Community Services, says the agency's outreach team has also connected with people who say their tents were slashed by police. 

"What we found, it's often enforcement agents who don't understand the larger way of doing things and the system that's in place to properly give people the notice and engage outreach services," Tkachuk said. 

Asked about reports of tent slashing, EPS spokesperson Carolin Maran denied officers take down tents. If they are requested to assist with clearing a camp, Maran said it's done in coordination with the city. 

The city said it wasn't aware of any such incidents or the unauthorized use of pepper spray by bylaw officers.

In most cases, Tkachuk said, when the city learns about an encampment, campers are served with eviction notices. Boyle Street's outreach team is sent to connect campers with resources before bylaw displaces the site. 

But last weekend, police and bylaw officers displaced an encampment across the street from Pekiwewin without first having outreach workers connect with campers. The city made a request to Boyle's outreach team late Friday, Tkachuk said, but when the agency said it didn't have the resources to attend on the weekend, the city went ahead with enforcement on Sunday. 

In an emailed statement, city spokesperson Geoff Grimble said when a camp poses a risk to public safety, bylaw officers may clear it without the involvement of street outreach teams. In this case, Grimble said Pekiwewin had agreed to cap its capacity and the displaced encampment across the street risked "increased growth and congestion."  

Robinson, one of the camp organizers, called it "categorically irresponsible" for the city to displace the camp, especially before outreach workers arrived. 

"It exacerbates the problem that people are facing: that they can't isolate in place, they have nowhere to go, and they probably need a lot of support," she said. 

The city resumed regular displacement of camps beginning of June, after ending a moratorium on enforcement to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. 

The city is reviewing Pekiwewin's demands and has set up an internal team to work toward a resolution, Grimble said. 

Organizers are calling on the city to open washroom facilities at Re/Max Field and refusing talks until the city takes responsibility for sanitation needs on the site, from hand-washing stations to garbage disposal. The camp is currently paying for six portable toilets through donations. 

"The city is assessing the best way to support garbage pickup and provide hand-washing stations to complement the use of porta-potties at the site," Grimble said. 

"Should the situation escalate, peace officers will connect with EPS, so that EPS can coordinate a response if required." 

'This person could've died' 

One incident involving EPS has driven home what organizers call persistent police neglect and intimidation when responding to incidents involving homeless people.

On July 31, organizers called 911 for emergency medical help around 7:30 p.m. after a trans, two-spirit member of the camp was assaulted and left with life-threatening injuries, Siewert said. 

Siewert started tending to the community member who had blood streaming down their face and needed help breathing.

Police say they arrived at 7:51 p.m., nine minutes after EPS received calls about a serious assault or stabbing at the camp. Maran said dispatchers had trouble collecting information about the location, "which contributed to the dispatch timeline." 

Organizers said about 10 police officers and two members of the tactical unit arrived, even though they had told dispatchers they didn't need police.

"The kind of tone of negligence, intimidation and fear that that puts into community members is inacceptable. It is a form of violence," said Fuentes, one of the organizers. 

Police defended the decision, saying the multiple reports of a serious assault motivated the level of response. 

Pekiwewin organizers called the police response to a 911 call for medical support, which included sending members of the tactical unit, was intimidating and neglectful. (Supplied by Shima Robinson)

Siewert says police at the scene "did not provide any support" when she asked for medical supplies, as she tried to stabilize the injured community member. Maran said one officer tried to step into help when officers arrived.

"We had to hold them while they were breathing, I was rescue-breathing for them for 25 minutes, trying to keep them alive," Siewert said.

There was a 10-minute gap between when police received the call and when it was forwarded to EMS, according to police and Alberta Health Services timelines of the incident. 

Maran said EMS will not attend a violent incident until the scene is secured by police. Asked why an ambulance was not alerted once police received the call, in order for EMS to remain on standby close to the scene, Maran said she had no more information.

In an email, an AHS spokesperson said if there is a safety risk, EMS will stand by five blocks away until police can secure the scene. But in this case, EMS only received the call from the police after officers arrived.

"This person could've died," Siewert said. "It was incredibly traumatizing for our community."  

Kaela Siewert, a former EMT, inside the medical tent at Camp Pekiwewin. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

After a week of anxious concern, organizers say the injured community member returned to camp on Friday.

As Pekiwewin nears its third full week, organizers say there are no plans to dismantle what's been built. 

McFeeters says he's in for the long haul. He says his mind now turns toward the uncertainty of what will happen when temperatures drop. 

"I do know this much: I won't stop helping. I'll line my tent, I'll make it count. And I'll help those who need a place to stay. We don't have much but we share it."