Mathew Cardinal: Helped With Security at Pekiwewin Camp

On July 31, after funding ended for the summer, the homeless day use centre at the Edmonton EXPO Centre and the 180 beds at Kinsman Sports Centre closed, leaving Edmonton’s homeless population with nowhere to go. 

In that same week, anticipating the closure of both centres, a group of 25 Indigenous two-spirit women and femme folks working in solidarity with Black, LGBTQ2S and settler allies joined forces to establish an active ceremonial site and camp to welcome and support the unhoused population in Edmonton. This camp was called Pekiwewin (which means “coming home” in Cree). Situated at the base of downtown at 96 Avenue and 104 Street and visible to all who crossed the river at Walterdale Bridge, Pekiwewin provided safety, security, food, healthcare, and political visibility for a group of people who are marginalized and were neglected in the provincial and municipal response to Covid. 

When not actively engaged in providing security for Pekewiwin, the Brotherhood tended the sacred fire that burned for the four months the camp was in operation. “The fire has not stopped. It’s a sacred fire to help us keep up our spirits,” said Cardinal. 

Camp volunteers supported 170 tent homes over the summer. Their mandate included harm reduction and trauma-informed care. In the first week, after an incident of violence at Pekiwewin was poorly responded to by the police, camp organizers rejected police presence and turned to Crazy Indians Brotherhood to provide security for the community. 

Crazy Indians Brotherhood is a group of Indigenous men working together to assist other young Indigenous men in leaving lifestyles that include crime and addiction. Their mandate is to provide positive mentorship to incoming members as they work to provide acts of service in the wider community. They centre themselves around the Seven Grandfather Teachings of courage, honesty, humility, truth, wisdom, love, and respect. The Crazy Indians Brotherhood was invited to provide security at Pekewin by the organizers.

Mathew Cardinal, a member of the Brotherhood, worked as a security guard at the River Cree Casino on the west end before the pandemic.

His compassion for the people who lived at Pekiwewin is evident. He said, “Imagine living homeless and in a pandemic with nowhere to go.” As an Indigenous man, he is fully aware of the forms of violence systemic racism can take. He talked about the experiences tent-housed people endure. From the petty “Police take tent pegs and keep them,” to the violent “Police slash tents, spray [them] with mace so they can’t use it again.” 

A police officer later clarified that they do not slash the tents, but rather they supervise City workers who slash the tents, and the spray they use is not mace but another noxious substance designed to make the tent or tarps unusable. 

“The Crazy Indians Brotherhood patrols the area to make sure this does not happen,” Cardinal said. 

While the police were not invited to enter the camp, they did “turn on sirens and honk horns and circle the camp.” They also had the “paddy wagon” out, which homeless and Indigenous people perceive as a threat of violence. On another occasion, fire fighters from a nearby fire station circled Pekiwewin with their sirens blaring. 

Conversely, Cardinal said some members of Edmonton Police Service appreciated the Brotherhood security. Members of Crazy Indians Brotherhood wear coats with their insignia and are recognizable. 

Cardinal said, “We were approached by two undercover officers downtown and they said they support us.” He continued, “It doesn’t bother us. [This camp] is actually more positive for the police because it’s our problem now and they’re not dealing with it downtown.” Cardinal noted that police dropped homeless people off at Pekiwewin. “We’ve tried to get the license plate [of the police vehicles] but cannot.” 

He contrasted how Crazy Indians Brotherhood provides security against how the police treat people who are homeless.

“I have seen police do unnecessary stuff. If someone is coming off of drugs or alcohol, they’ll escalate it.” Having lived experience with difficult situations provided for a compassionate response. “We break up a lot of fights. Five to 15 fights a day.” Generally, people who were hung over and testy, or folks who struggled with addictions and needed a fix started the arguments. 

Members of the Brotherhood responded to the noise level in the camp. “When it gets louder, we go over. Community members know we’re here for security. They don’t feel intimidated. They know they have to keep their cool when they see us.”

When not actively engaged in providing security, the Brotherhood tended the sacred fire that burned for the four months the camp was in operation. “The fire has not stopped. It’s a sacred fire to help us keep up our spirits,” said Cardinal.  

They also helped with the donations and support the camp received from the public. “The camp has been getting lots of donations and supports.”  

In addition to material support, volunteers helped with intangible supports. “Homeless are illiterate to a lot of things. They need a lot of support,” said Cardinal. “Some people have a hard time because of the pandemic. They could be on hold for three hours [trying to access government supports like CERB]. Homeless people have no minutes on their phones. They’re struggling hard.”

He added, “Nobody really sticks up for the homeless. We’re doing this for a good cause—to help our community out. We want people to know homeless people should be treated better and change people’s perspective on how they view homeless. It’s good to see the donations and support. See people open their eyes.”

At the end of October, the City of Edmonton announced they would be opening the Edmonton Convention Centre on Grierson Hill as a full day-use and night-time shelter for 300 homeless people. On Oct. 31, the volunteers who organized Pekiwewin announced its closure. Their entire budget for serving the homeless community in Edmonton was $30,000. There were no cases of Covid in the homeless population while Pekiwewin was open. 

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