Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/3/2012 (2885 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The dare comes every Friday: "Meet me at the bell tower."
The bell tower is in the notorious North End, and the challenge comes from youths who are sick of the violence that grips the heart of Winnipeg.
"I come here because of my uncle," said Whitney Fleury, 17. "He was shot a block away from my house on College."
Her uncle, Ashley Fleury, 32, was walking home in the early morning of April 14, 2008, when he passed by a group of teenage boys. They had a short conversation before he walked away. One of them shot Fleury in the back. No one has been arrested in his death.
"It hurt me. I still can't believe he's gone."
Fleury has been coming to these rallies at the bell tower, located at Selkirk Avenue and Powers Street, since they began last November, joining a small group of people hoping to ring in change in their beleaguered neighbourhood.
"The initial seed was planted in September with the death of Clarky," said Michael Redhead Champagne, who helped spearhead the rallies.
Clark Stevenson was 15 when he was fatally stabbed in a gang-related attack. Days later, his friends and family organized a walk from the North End corner where he was killed to the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Two weeks after Stevenson was killed, 20-year-old David Vincett was shot dead on Boyd Avenue. Then in November two more youths were shot, one suffering serious injuries. The first rally was held on Nov. 25, as a way for youths affected by the violence to speak out.
"We only wanted to do it once," Champagne said.
But the bell tower rallies became a weekly call to action. Grassroots groups have used them as a forum. Politicians show up to ring the bell, including Winnipeg Coun. Ross Eadie and NDP MLA Kevin Chief.
"I didn't expect people to take such ownership of it," Champagne said.
Tonight, about 20 people huddle around the bell tower. Cars honk as they drive by and people carefully shuffle by along the narrow sidewalk. They're listening to Champagne, a tall, skinny young man in a bright red tuque and glasses.
"When I look around and I see the little ones that have come to our bell tower and I see the not-so-little ones that have come here to the bell tower, it shows me the family that we are trying to create, the community that we are here to represent, does exist!"
This 24-year-old is not your stereotypical North End kid. Champagne is not a gang member nor has he ever been one. He isn't a high school dropout, doesn't drink or do drugs. He loves to read and write spoken poetry. In fact, by all accounts Michael is a good boy.
His mother, Sharron Champagne, says she never had any problems with him. "He's always been a helper, always. Ever since he was small. If he saw somebody in trouble or an animal or anything, he'd try to help them."
His favourite teacher, Mary Jo Holmes, called him her "go-to guy" when he was in her Grade 5 class at Margaret Park School.
"I can remember the day he started with us," said Holmes. "He just had this beautiful smile on his face and he was excited to be there. Right from the get-go, he was just one of those kids that stood out in a crowd."
So what's this "good boy" doing leading a bunch of people down Selkirk Avenue with a bullhorn?
Michael says it's a role he's been preparing for his entire life.
"I am a walking symbol of what can happen," he explains.
Originally from Shamattawa Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, he was adopted, grew up in Winnipeg and has seen firsthand how gangs and violence stalk young lives. "I made a conscious decision. That's not what I wanted."
But the boy who loved to read was bullied and ashamed of his Cree heritage. He put up with it until it finally became too much. It was in Grade 4 at David Livingston School. Some boys had been relentlessly tripping him from behind.
"I remember it was in the afternoon, at recess and I was so upset, just seething — a ticking time bomb."
Even though he avoided the bullies, sure enough someone tripped him again.
"I fell and smashed my already bloody and bruised knees. I stood up and turned around and he was laughing because he didn't expect me to do anything because I never did anything. But I punched him right in the face."
Champagne balls up his fist as he remembers the day that changed him. "I found out sometimes you have to stand up for yourself."
He started volunteering and joined different clubs, such as cadets, where he learned to be deliberate about everything he projects, from his speech to the way he dresses. In Grade 12, he was the first co-president of student council because he didn't like the imbalance of power between the president and the vice-president.
Then in 2005, he started working in local community groups, where his passion for helping North End youths find their voice was really sparked.
"I was a street kid going down the wrong path," said Jenna Licious, one of many youths affected by the charismatic Champagne. "I was doing drugs, drinking and running around the streets."
After she graduated, she hit a dead end. "There's nothing for kids in the North End after they graduate. I had no clue what to do in my life."
She found a youth drop-in-centre on Selkirk Avenue that gave her job experience and helped her with a resumé. It's also where she met Champagne. He was working his way though an education degree. He wanted to work with kids, so being a teacher seemed a natural fit.
But Champagne didn't find his calling in the halls of higher learning, or inside the social agencies that line Salter Street. He dropped out of school and separated from the drop-in-centre. Instead, he found his calling on the streets and anywhere young people gathered.
"He wanted to maintain relationships," recalls Licious. "(For that) I held him in high regard."
Together with other North End youth, they formed Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, an anti-gang organization that just celebrated its second birthday. He said giving youths a say in who they are and what they want is the only way to stop the violence.
AYO has been behind initiatives like the new Selkirk Street Banners and the FWD newspaper by, for and about North End youth and run out of area high schools. Most recently, they started a younger-kids' group called North End Opportunities Network (NEON).
"It's always too big. Its always too heavy," says a rarely weary Champagne of the work he does, "but because it is so big and heavy, that's why it's so important."
Another bell tower gathering winds up in the North End. People gather one last time, shake hands, hug and smile as they leave. Michael Champagne stands in the shadow of the bell tower.
He reminds people to come back next Friday.