It takes a village: Reaching out to First Nations homeless

Althea Guiboche often talks about why she works every week, as a single mom on assistance, to provide bannock to the homeless and hungry on Winnipeg’s streets – in honour of the village we once had.

'Why do so many children in care or living on the street feel they do not have a village to keep them safe?'

Wednesday marks the second anniversary of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine's body being pulled from the Red River. (Facebook)

Althea Guiboche often talks about why she works every week, as a single mom on assistance, to provide bannock to the homeless and hungry on Winnipeg’s streets – in honour of the village we once had.

Guiboche personifies this village every week alongside the helpers and the hungry that come her way. The realness of the village, as it exists today, is brought home to me in the many passionate demonstrations of kindness, generosity and love I have witnessed in the last number of years – not only at ‘Got Bannock?’ but at Meet Me at the Bell Tower, at Water Wednesdays, at numerous Idle No More rallies, at the new Round Dance initiative All Good in the Hood.

The village that Althea supports is not a thing of the past.

The village exists every time community members come together to share their gift with the purpose of helping others – understanding that it’s all of our jobs to watch the children, ensure everyone is fed and that each person in attendance feels safe.

But most importantly, when the village convenes — whether it’s on the corner at Dufferin Avenue and Main Street, or at the sound of the drum at an inner city park — everyone knows they are loved.

Fontaine and Hall

I was saddened to hear of two of our relatives, Tina Fontaine and Faron Hall, being pulled from the Red River recently. Unsure of many details surrounding their deaths, some harsh realities remain glaringly in focus.

Tina was a teenager who cared deeply for her family and had only been in Winnipeg for about a month. She was also in the care of Child and Family Services (CFS) with a history of running away.

Faron Hall, Winnipeg’s "Homeless Hero" made headlines for the heroism demonstrated when he put his own life on the line to save the lives of others on more than one occasion.

He was also homeless, struggling with addictions and regularly in trouble with the law on various alcohol and panhandling related charges. Faron spent his adolescence in the care of CFS as well.
Faron Hall is shown in this 2011 photo. His body was recovered from the Red River this weekend, according to family.

These are the daily realities of being indigenous in Winnipeg. These individuals, so seemingly far apart in lifestyle and circumstance,​ had an identical fate. Death, with no village to keep them safe or to say 'I love you.'

Why do so many children in care or living on the street feel they do not have a village to keep them safe?

What, as a Winnipeg and Manitoba community,​ are we doing to ensure that those who are most vulnerable to exploitation are protected and safe?

Support for villagers

In the village we once had, there were clan systems that we all belonged to. In your clan you had helpers, with similar abilities — so you could work together. And then the different clans would coordinate their complementary gifts to create a healthy, stable and safe community.

It’s the fact that we all have interests and gifts in different areas that makes our village so strong.

Do the kids in care know they belong to a clan and that their gifts are desperately needed by the rest of the circle? Do our relatives on the streets know that there are many who walk by, frantically searching their brains for an action that they could be sure would help instead of harm?

If this was the village we once had, each homeless person would be honoured for the gifts that they possess — language, storytelling, ceremony, how to live off the land, resilience.

Each child in care would be surrounded by aunts, uncles, neighbours and mentors — each individual understanding they are part of a circle. They would not end their lives, exploited or addicted, wrapped in plastic being pulled from the river.

That circle is not the same when you are not in it — the whole circle is affected when part of our circle is taken from us, as with the loss of our relatives Tina and Faron have​ been​.

If your heart is not affected by this, I ask you to re-examine your place in the village we have today.

Reconvening our village

It is real — but only if you make it so with your actions. I have seen it with my own eyes and experienced with my own hands how it feels to give, and to celebrate with and to love one another.

I have seen the transformation on the face of a homeless person as they bite into a warm, fresh piece of bannock — the warmth radiating from their smiles as they recall days gone by — "'Tastes like back home." 

The village is real when children are being babysat by a peace rally of about 50 people – being loved and respected and encouraged to share their voice and their ideas.

These community events are great; visible, accessible examples that prove and demonstrate to all who are brave enough to attend what is possible when we work together. 

Some say we are heroes — I say we are the village. Those who have been to these gatherings have seen and felt the power of giving because we are able to — and because others are in need.

If you feel like there is nothing you can do to help, think again.

Every time we challenge a stereotype we hear in conversation, we are the village.

Every time we share our gift because someone else needs it, not because we are gaining in the exchange, we are the village.

Every time we role model safety and encourage children and teenagers to do the same, we are the village. And I think we can all agree we need this village, of days gone by, to be real again today.

This is a call out, a challenge, a reminder, to you, the person reading this; the village is you.

The public is invited to a peaceful assembly at the Alexander Docks at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday night where a moment of silence and reflection will be held, followed by a march to the Monument for Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women at The Forks.

Michael Redhead Champagne is a Winnipeg activist and community leader, and founder of Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO!).​​