These real-life Canadian superheroes don masks and capes to help the homeless — and say you can do it too
Journalist Peter Nowak explores motivations of real-life superheroes in new book
When Matthew Sewell hands out care packages to homeless people in Toronto or his hometown of Windsor, he does it while wearing medieval body armour topped with hockey shoulder pads, and a chain mail cloth around his head and neck.
Urban Knight — Matthew's alter ego — is part of a group called the Trillium Guards of Ontario, who dress as real-life superheroes to do their volunteer work, in order to draw attention to the plight of the people they're helping.
"It's not every day you see someone dressed up like a variant of a mediaeval knight walking around," Matthew told The Current's Matt Galloway.
That means passers-by are more likely to pay attention as the group hands out items like "feminine hygiene products and socks, toothpaste, toothbrushes and granola bars, simple foodstuffs, to pick them up, get them through the day," he said.
While they don't wear the costumes every time — in case it takes away time from getting out there and helping — Matthew said "it is a little empowering, being a force [for] good in community, and being noticed for it."
He first got involved in costumed caregiving through his brother Mark Sewell — a.k.a. Canadian Justice — who told Galloway about an emotional encounter on their first trip to Toronto.
"There was a guy, he was at least 60, and he started crying actually, after we'd given him a couple of things," Mark told Galloway.
"It was just the fact that someone actually took the time to talk to him as a human being — it'd been so long."
He thinks that "anyone can make the difference."
"Apathy is the biggest problem. Just pay attention. That's it, just be a good human being."
Do-gooders and crime fighters
Toronto journalist Peter Nowak has spent some time among real-life superheroes — including the Trillium Guards — and says they're more common than you might think.
"At any given time, there might be a couple hundred around the world," he said, citing a 2015 Australian study that found while they are a global phenomenon, the bulk live in the U.S.
These helpers are the subject of Nowak's new book The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes: and the Fall of Everything Else, the idea for which came to him one sleepless night.
"Being the nerd that I am, I was lying there thinking: how come nobody's tried to be Batman in the real world?" he said.
When he started looking into it, he found they did exist — but maybe in more modest terms than billionaire Bruce Wayne.
The heroes he found fell into two categories: people trying to help the helpless, like the Trillium Guard, and those actively trying to fight crime.
That second group is "trying to keep the peace and try to watch out for things that are happening, and maybe act as eyes and ears for the police," he said.
"A lot of them are actually ex-military types, especially in the U.S.," he said.
These people may have been overseas, he said, and want to keep patrolling when they return home.
"It's a way of injecting a little bit of almost thrill into one's life."
'Trained in de-escalation'
Nowak said some real-life superheroes may want to be involved in law enforcement, without wanting to "go through the trouble of becoming a police officer and having to follow those rules."
How actual police officers feel about that can vary, he said.
He spent time with a group called the Xtreme Justice League in San Diego, who patrol a downtown area near a baseball stadium, where bars and restaurants entertain a mix of locals, tourists and sports fans.
"They've actually trained in de-escalation techniques," said Nowak.
"They basically just try to separate the guys who are trying to get into a fight and try to talk them down and try to get them talking about different subjects."
But while Nowak said "San Diego police definitely tolerates them," real life superheroes have fallen foul of police in other cities like Seattle, where Phoenix Jones, real name Benjamin John Francis Fodor, ended up in court on assault charges in 2011, after pepper spraying members of the public.
"It really depends on the group," Nowak said.
"If they're seen to not be doing harm, then they're probably going to be more friendly with the police than not."
'A knight in shining armour'
Mark said that the public has reacted positively to Canadian Justice and the Trillium Guards, apart from when they first started dressing up in 2013, around the time of the G20 protests.
"A lot of people thought that there was a group of terrorists, and some of them ran away screaming and called the cops," he said.
"Since then, it's actually been pretty positive," adding that people tend to see his brother's costume as "a knight in shining armour."
Dressing up also breaks the ice with the people they're trying to help, and lets them get to know each other faster, he said.
Nowak said he hasn't been convinced to become a caped crusader, but his time among real-life superheroes has had a positive effect.
"I was certainly as guilty as anybody of having those blinders on whenever I see homelessness," he told Galloway.
"I'd like to say that's a little bit better now. I do at least exchange a few words, if not do something for them," he said.
"So to that extent, what they're doing — it's a very small level — but it's at least succeeding."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann.