Aboriginal leaders and community members, RCMP, Winnipeg police, firefighters and representatives of the military will spend the next four days feasting and celebrating to honour the men and women they consider to be modern warriors and heroes.
"There's been a difficult relationship between the aboriginal population and the police," says elder Art Shofley, organizer of the Bear Clan gathering, which is expected to attract more than 100 people.
"The idea of it is to bring back to the forefront the idea of supporting our police and our military. They're part of our community and we value them."
The Bear Clan is traditionally considered to be made up of those responsible for safeguarding the community, the warriors and the providers of food. Tonight, members of the RCMP and the Winnipeg police will prepare and serve food they have bought for the feast.
"This is very grassroots," says Shofley. "This is restorative justice at its very basic roots."
The gathering, which will be held on the grounds of the Behavioral Foundation in St. Norbert, will be kicked off with a large assembly this afternoon.
Winnipeg Police Service deputy chief Menno Zacharias, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service chief Wes Shoemaker, RCMP assistant commissioner Gerry Braun, Mayor Glenn Murray and members of the Sgt. Tommy Price cadet corps will march in behind eagle staffs.
If all this seems far removed from the mistrust and hatred of the J. J. Harper days, Shofley says it is past time those bridges were mended.
"We can sit back and let the animosity get worse or we can move forward," he says. "We could deplore the situation or we can be constructive. This is an effort on our part to be constructive, to take action. We're choosing to believe the glass is half-full."
Murray will be honoured for the establishment of an aboriginal strategy and for his efforts to develop an urban reserve.
Urban reserves are city properties owned by First Nations bands. They allow aboriginals to launch commercial ventures and enjoy some degree of immunity from sales and income taxes. The creation of urban reserves is part of Winnipeg's aboriginal strategy, approved by city council last month.
Two projects are currently being eyed by Buffalo Point First Nation and eight other southeast bands, for urban reserve status -- a $2-million office building at 360 Broadway, which has been owned for the last six years by the Southeast Resource Development Council Corporation, formerly the Southeast Tribal Council.
Buffalo Point has also agreed to purchase and convert the abandoned Starland Theatre on Main Street and an accompanying empty lot from Centre Venture Corp., the city's downtown development agency. The property will be used for as-yet-undetermined commercial development.
"We want to acknowledge that this mayor and this council has officially opened the door to the aboriginal people, to build on the positive," says Shofley. "We've been officially accepted into this city and it's high time. We know what it's like to be marginalized. We need to be seen as bringing gifts."
Can it work? Can a four-day spiritual event really begin to heal the wounds of generations? Will this gathering really result in long-term change?
Those who have committed to the event believe it will.
Rick Kosowan, a city police officer on loan to the Winnipeg Aboriginal Youth Cities Project, says the gathering is a chance for mutual respect to be shown.
"It's an opportunity for all voices to be heard and respected," says Kosowan. "It's a chance for law enforcement and military to be recognized and to also recognize the value of the aboriginal community. Changes are already underway and this is a chance to build on that."
Zacharias says a teepee and eagle staff recently obtained by the police service indicate a deeper understanding of aboriginal culture.
"I think it's one of those two-way streets," he says. "There's a benefit, real significance to doing it."
PPCLI company Sgt.-Major Tim Power says the event has great meaning for the troops.
"I think for the military, for a few years we've been trying to celebrate the diversity that makes us strong. The fact that we do have aboriginal soldiers, that we honour Sgt. Tommy Price has great meaning."
After four days of feasting, honouring elders and celebrating the warriors, the organizers hope both the aboriginal community and the law enforcement representatives leave with greater respect for each other.
"They're giving of themselves, sometimes of their lives for us," says Shofley. "I have a responsibility to support and encourage them."
The public can attend the celebrations. Further information is available at 269-3430, or 986-7420.
PHOTO MARC GALLANT/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS