‘It’s all the little things we can do’
Gina Smoke knows she can’t fix Winnipeg’s complicated homeless problem, but she’s willing to roll up her sleeves to help
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The air is cold and the sound of snow crunching underfoot is loud while walking down a path that leads to an open area along the Red River just east of Higgins Avenue.
An encampment — a home for people without homes — stood here not long ago. There are a few small, mostly symbolic remnants from the now-cleared community scattered about: a burned-down candle and a small angel figurine, covered by a fresh dusting of snow.
Gina Smoke stands in the middle of the clearing and points to the areas where people — her friends — once lived. Smoke, a mother and grandmother from Dakota Plains First Nation who works at Unifor as the union’s Indigenous liaison, has been here and to other, similar encampments in the area many times. She drops off food or blankets or just visits; she has built relationships with some of Winnipeg’s most vulnerable citizens by offering help and humanity to people who are so often overlooked.
“I don’t have the power to fix it,” she says of the complicated web of systemic issues that have ensnared so many lives.
But she can help, and that’s what she focuses on.
The 2022 Winnipeg Street Census found at least 1,250 people in the city are without housing. It’s a rough estimate; the reality could be 4,000 more, the report concluded.
During the bitterly cold winter of 2020, Smoke and a few other volunteers, including Unifor members and community outreach workers and anti-gang activist Mitch Bourbonniere, banded together to do wellness checks at several Winnipeg bus shelters. It was a small, grassroots effort that grew over time.
That first night she had Unifor’s blessing to buy hot coffee for the people in the bus shelters.
“We ended up making a bunch of soup and sandwiches at the same time, and when we went to hand them out, we realized how many people there were and it was just overwhelming,” she says. “It took us an hour-and-a-half just to hit all the bus shelters.”
Smoke says people offered up all sorts of donations. Every Saturday, Tallest Poppy owner Talia Syrie made soup for the group to hand out. Volunteers leveraged their local community Facebook groups, putting out the call for blankets and warm clothing and boots. As the weather warmed and people left the bus shelters, the operation slowed down.
“This eventually translated to her and I visiting encampments all along Higgins Avenue and getting to know the folks there and trying to support them,” Bourbonniere says.
The two of them, sometimes with other friends and volunteers, would check in at the encampments that would pop up along Higgins. The people they got to know were always kind and respectful and willing to share a laugh. What struck Smoke was how helpful they were.
On Christmas Day, Smoke and several volunteers, many from Unifor locals, distributed supplies and gifts to people living in the encampment near the Louise Bridge.
Not long after that, the city moved in to dismantle the camp, where firefighters had put out several blazes over the previous couple of months.
“I think what happens is, the city’s concern was, like, they didn’t want anyone dying from a fire starting. There is a risk for fire with the encampments,” Bourbonniere says.
“So I think what the city does is they employ a couple of social agencies to go in there early… they send outreach workers into the camps to kind of let people know that, you know, the camp will be coming down at some point, and they’re given some notice.”
While that’s happening, outreach workers try to get encampment residents into safer housing, he says.
“(Gina) has made sure to keep in communication with the outreach workers and also with the folks from the camps so that she knows where everybody’s going, she knows that they’re getting to keep all their possessions that they have, and she advocates for them. Now that we know where they are housed, our next job, Gina and I, is to outfit everybody with furniture, beds, household goods, pots and pans, dishes and utensils.”
Bourbonniere describes Smoke as a quiet, humble leader he and others follow in what he describes as the most direct and basic grassroots street work that is rooted in relationship building.
Smoke plays down her role.
“I’m not fixing anything,” she says again. “I focus on what can I do…. It’s all the little things we can do. Like, I can’t change the world, I can’t even change my own situation most of the time. All I can do is help someone get through an hour — feed them if I can. Keep them warm if I can. That’s all I can do.”
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.
Updated on Monday, January 16, 2023 9:32 AM CST: Adds web headline
Updated on Monday, January 16, 2023 10:33 AM CST: Fixes web headline