Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Indian City is a real-life version of Survivor

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IF you've ever driven, cycled or strolled through downtown Winnipeg, you've seen them.

Chances are that you tried your best to ignore them. If you did pay them any notice at all, it most likely came in the form of a muttered curse or a frustrated gesture.

And then you probably moved on. But the street people -- the homeless people, the drunks, the panhandlers, the hookers and assorted other downtrodden types who litter the downtown streets -- remained.

An interesting perspective on life on the streets of this and other Canadian-Prairie cities arrives on television this weekend in the form of the locally produced documentary Indian City: Stories from the Street, which airs tonight at 7 on Global TV.

The hour-long program, produced by Winnipeg-based Blonde Indian Productions, examines the issue of homelessness through the eyes of three people who've lived it, survived it, escaped it and are now extending a hand to help others get out of it.

Author/businessman Daniel Paul Bork acts as host and narrator of the film, which focuses on street life in Winnipeg and Regina, where the homeless populations are about 70 per cent aboriginal. A former street person himself, Bork attempts to explain the roots of native homelessness on the Prairies and offers his own experience as evidence that it's possible to break away and make a new start.

"But the street changes you," he warns. "You carry the street with you when you leave it."

His is a view shared by the three survivors profiled in Indian City.

Joanne Nimik is a community-development worker at the Ndaawin Project in Winnipeg's North End but up until five years ago she was a drunk, a cocaine user and a low-track hooker.

"I didn't grow up dreaming about being on the street," she says, recalling a childhood in which she was adopted into a white, middle-class family and then suffered a second crisis of identity when her parents' marriage failed.

She fell in with a bad crowd, found herself looking for ways to make easy money to support her addictions, and quickly spiralled downward until she hit bottom half a decade ago.

It wasn't easy, and it involved a whole lot of help from others, but Nimik got out.

Albert Ratt was born on the Peguis Reserve but left home at age 15, headed for Winnipeg in search of freedom and adventure. What he found was despair and addiction, and for nearly two decades Ratt lived among the faceless, hopeless and homeless in Winnipeg's downtown core.

"The freedom I was looking for on the street was not real freedom," he reflects.

Out of desperation, he called his mother and asked if he could go home and try to start again. With the support of his family and the strength of a newfound Christian faith, Ratt broke free.

The hour's most inspiring story belongs to Jim Sinclair, a Saskatchewan Metis leader who was born in 1933 and lived a nomadic life for most of the first half of his life. His family was literally dirt poor, living in a tent and moving from region to region. After the Second World War, they joined hundreds of other aboriginal families in a tent city on the outskirts of Regina, where they endured frequent attacks by local thugs and were afforded no police protection because they weren't considered citizens.

Not surprisingly, Sinclair fell into the familiar cycle of despair and addiction. And then, quite surprisingly, he turned his life around, finding purpose in community activism and confidence through his encounters in the game of golf.

Clean and sober for more than four decades, Sinclair has been a tireless advocate for native and Metis rights, including several instances in which he has represented Saskatchewan's aboriginal peoples in constitutional negotiations.

Manitoba's former lieutenant-governor, Yvon Dumont, calls Sinclair "one of my heroes."

Indian City is by no means a thorough examination of the issues of native homelessness and poverty, but it provides a useful, hopeful perspective from people who've survived the worst and succeeded at doing their part to make their communities better.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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