A calm amidst the noise Elders, allies keep vigil over sacred fire, a short distance from anti-vax protest

The horns start blaring at 9 a.m. On this morning they blow for exactly two minutes and 19 seconds, braying a discordant symphony across Winnipeg. An announcement that the convoy of trucks set up in front of the legislature is still here, as if anyone living downtown could forget, and also the soundtrack of a national clash that is heating to boiling.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/02/2022 (235 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The horns start blaring at 9 a.m. On this morning they blow for exactly two minutes and 19 seconds, braying a discordant symphony across Winnipeg. An announcement that the convoy of trucks set up in front of the legislature is still here, as if anyone living downtown could forget, and also the soundtrack of a national clash that is heating to boiling.

About 160 metres from the convoy, in a small teepee surrounded by a huddle of low tents, Daniel Caneda, 28, and Holly Enns, 33, look up from the fire they’ve been tending. It’s a sacred fire, started and protected by Indigenous elders, and its peace is broken these days by the horns that periodically blast throughout the day and evening.

“That’s the first time we’ve heard them today,” Enns says, unruffled.

The teepee where the sacred fire has been burning on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building since July. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The tents rose on the legislature’s eastern flank last July, long before the convoys rolled across Canada, and they will be here long after. Organizers vowed the sacred fire will burn until all the graves of children who died in residential schools have been found, and they have brought together a tight-knit community of volunteers who share in the vision.

Caneda and Enns are among them. The pair are allies to the Indigenous-led camp — Enns is Mennonite, Caneda is Filipino — and have been doing shifts at the fire every Thursday and Friday for a few weeks. They wear goggles to shield their eyes from the smoke, and help manage the food and supplies, and chat with everyone who comes in.

“It’s a chance to give back,” Enns says. “It’s a chance to be involved, and a chance to really participate in decolonizing and helping to remember what happened at residential schools. There’s just something really existential about sitting beside a fire that makes me feel alive, and makes me feel good. The way the hours pass, it’s a really peaceful place to be.”

And they were at the camp last week, when the convoy set up. They’d been warned the day before by police who came to visit in street clothing, as vigil organizers had asked them to do last summer. There might be conflict, the cops said, so when Enns and Caneda arrived early the next day and the trucks were already there, they weren’t sure what to expect.

They have tried to be mindful, keeping an eye on each other when they need to step outside the camp. But there are always elders around the fire, listening and sharing stories and providing medicine. One of them told Enns and Caneda that he had no visions of anything bad happening at the sacred fire vigil, so that was reassuring.

“He didn’t have a bad feeling,” Caneda says. “It was just reaffirming that we’re going to be safe when an elder says they don’t have any bad vibes. Because it’s pretty powerful, spiritually, being around a sacred fire, and having an elder there just to talk to, and to confide in.”

So far, true to the elder’s perception, there has been no conflict between the camps, at least not that Enns and Caneda have seen or heard about, and very little contact of any kind. A few people from the anti-mandate protest have ambled by, asking what the sacred fire vigil is about, but for the most part the two groups have stayed in their own places.

Still, Enns agrees, it’s sort of interesting: two occupations, sprung up in the same place, albeit with very different roots and very different stories. This one belongs to Indigenous people, holding their culture on their own territory and supported by allies. The injustice they protest lasted for generations, and still they are here, they are standing.

Volunteer fire keepers Holly Enns (left) with her partner Daniel “Kuya” Caneda (right) and full-time fire keeper John Butler (centre) keep watch over the sacred fire. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“That is the really significant part to it,” Enns says. “Just being here, and taking up space.”

The horns have died down, now. Caneda stands up and rummages outside the tent for more logs to place on the fire. As he does, he plucks a bit of cedar leaf, from a bough that hangs inside the teepee’s walls. It’s medicine, he explains. It cleanses the fire, so every time you feed the flames, you put a bit of cedar in along with the wood.

An elder taught him that, and other ways to be around the fire. You do not gossip at the fire, or use profanity. You share, and you listen. You stay focused on what matters, and you have to be sober, and that part heals people too: one man who stays at the camp had struggled with addiction. Now he is sober, and spends his days tending to the camp’s needs.

As we sit, the conversation drifts with the smoke that rises up through the blackened poles of the teepee. We talk about music, and journalism, and about the people who have come together at the vigil, like the teen girl who visits because it’s safe, and she needs it. But she’s missing now, so they keep her in their thoughts, praying she will soon find her way back to the fire.

I tell them about how I had stared all week at a blank page, thinking I should write about the anti-mandate occupations but not knowing what, amidst all the noise, was for me to say; and about how, late the night before, a reader had emailed to ask if I would consider visiting the sacred fire vigil, an idea which, in that moment, arrived as a gift.

Everything is so loud, right now. It feels right to take a moment and focus on what is quiet, and healing.

Caneda passes me a pinch of tobacco. I hold it in my left hand for a moment, before offering it in prayer to the flames.

Outside the teepee, new snow lays a tender blanket over the old. Somewhere in Ottawa, the daily battle for the soul of a city is playing out on clogged streets. Somewhere in Beijing, athletes are falling into their beds, heads filled with hope for the next day’s competitions. All over the world, people are angry, joyful, divided, united. Some are bracing for war.

Organizers have vowed the sacred fire will burn until all the graves of children who died in residential schools have been found. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Inside the teepee, where it is warm, none of this can quite reach. The world shrinks until it is contained by the fire, until the mind nestles into the embers and the body aches to stay there forever, lost in conversations that roam like the bends of a river, wandering territories known and unknown but always meandering back to the reason the fire burns.

As the morning grows long, my newspaper deadline begins calling. I wrench myself away from the fire as a smattering of car horns squeals over Broadway. As I step out of the teepee, Caneda calls out a goodbye: come back any time, he says. Any time you want to talk, or just want to listen.

“The fire will always be here,” he says. “It will be here for a long time.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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