Bonfire offers warmth as experts confront chilling facts of homelessness
Sacred Fire keeper to maintain flames throughout the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Winnipeg
Sitting beside a small wood fire, David McPherson might have the best job in Winnipeg this week. He is the official Sacred Fire keeper at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness.
Nearly 1,000 front-line workers and former homeless people are gathering this week to discuss vulnerable people and strategies for finding housing.
McPherson's responsibility is to ensure the sweet, musky smell of woodsmoke continues to waft outside the RBC Convention Centre during the conference, running from Wednesday until Friday.
"We don't got marshmallows but we have some support by sitting around, talking," McPherson says.
Fold-up chairs surround a small backyard-style metal fire pit outside the convention centre. A bundle of sage sits on the edge, close to the flames. Every now and again, McPherson flips over the enclosure to toss in another log or two. The Sacred Fire crackles.
"When we look around — concrete jungle, everywhere. Here, at our level, is the spirit of the fire," he said.
"Just that natural, relaxing feeling that you get from a fire."
No marshmallows but there's support
The theme for this year's conference is Indigenous homelessness. Across the country, Indigenous people are over-represented among homeless populations.
The vast majority of Winnipeg's homeless are Indigenous people, according to a 2015 survey. Most have experience in the child-welfare system, which can be traced to the residential school system and breakdowns in Indigenous families, said Social Planning Council of Winnipeg community animator Christina Maes Nino, who co-ordinated the 2015 survey.
McPherson's fire is burning not only to fight the bite of the autumn cold, but also to help soothe attendees who may be confronting the realities of tragedy and trauma.
"[The fire] helps us to relax, helps us to identify, helps connect us with other people," he said.
Anyone is welcome to take a seat on one of the fold-up seats surrounding the fire, he added.
McPherson plans to keep it burning every day until Friday afternoon.