Meet the brave women patrolling Regina's toughest neighbourhood
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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.
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.
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.