April 8, 2020

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Homeless camps to be razed after teepee fire

Two homeless camps north of downtown will be dismantled Thursday after fire destroyed a teepee, the latest in a series of incidents that could have had "dire consequences."

A city spokesman confirmed the Main Street Project and other social outreach providers were working on Wednesday to find alternative shelter for people who live at the camps, which are at the corner of Austin Street and Henry Avenue, and between Lily Street and the Disraeli Freeway.

Debris scattered around the site of the teepee fire gathers snow in downtown Winnipeg Wednesday.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Debris scattered around the site of the teepee fire gathers snow in downtown Winnipeg Wednesday.

City crews will clean up anything left behind after the sites are vacated, said David Driedger, manager of the city's corporate communications.

Kyle, who preferred not to provide his last name, has lived at the encampment on Austin Street for a few months. He said a neighbour told him the camp was to be taken down.

"I don’t know what I’m going to do. What can I do?... I guess I’ll gather my stuff up and play a bullshit waiting game," he said.

Fires destroy donated teepees in homeless encampment near Disraeli

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A fire destroyed a teepee in a homeless tent village at the corner of Austin and Henry Tuesday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)						</p>
A fire destroyed a teepee in a homeless tent village at the corner of Austin and Henry Tuesday. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 15/01/2020 11:26 AM

Teepees built to provide shelter and cultural support to vulnerable Winnipeggers living in encampments along the Disraeli Freeway are no longer standing after separate fires that turned the two structures into rubble.

Firefighters put out a blaze that destroyed a teepee in the middle of a tent community north of downtown near Henry Avenue and Martha Street Tuesday afternoon.

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Driedger said recent incidents have shown the risk at the two encampments are too great to mitigate and the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has been called to numerous incidents that could have had "dire consequences."

"We recognize this is not an ideal outcome, but hope the individuals will accept the supports they are offered and utilize one of the many open shelter beds in the city, especially considering this week’s extreme cold snap," he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, a teepee that had been erected by community members and Indigenous groups to provide shelter for the dozen or so people at the Austin Street camp, burned to the ground. No one was hurt.

"As a native person, watching a blessed teepee burn down is hard to watch. It’s not supposed to happen," said Darren Flett, a 49-year-old member of Peguis First Nation. Flett has slept in a makeshift tent in the area, on and off, for a year-and-a-half.

The teepee had been provided to the camp in late December by family members of Matthew Allan Sutherland, a 28-year-old who lived in transient housing and accessed services in the area before he was killed last year. A fire had burned inside the teepee.

The teepee, pictured in late December, was erected in honour of Matthew Allan Sutherland and served as a warming shelter for homeless people living in a makeshift camp near the Manitoba Metis Federation building.

SHANNON VANRAES / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The teepee, pictured in late December, was erected in honour of Matthew Allan Sutherland and served as a warming shelter for homeless people living in a makeshift camp near the Manitoba Metis Federation building.

Flett said he left to go on a coffee run at about one o'clock and when he returned, the person who'd been designated as fire-keeper was gone and the teepee was on fire. Black smoke billowed from the structure; the fire, Flett said, was massive — with flames reaching more than half the height of a nearby hydro pole.

The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said the cause of the fire is undetermined.

Last week, a nearby teepee — the first of the two erected by a separate grassroots Indigenous group — was also damaged by fire. People living in the camp took it down.

"While only one person was reported injured to date, inspectors and responders identified numerous fire and life-safety hazards at the temporary encampments," Driedger said. "The structures are not built for Winnipeg’s winter conditions without a heat source. Many of the occupants are using candles, propane heaters or small campfires inside of tents, which is incredibly dangerous. Most of the encampments house a large volume of combustible materials and structures are built using repurposed materials not intended for that use.

"As a native person, watching a blessed teepee burn down is hard to watch. It’s not supposed to happen." — Darren Flett of Peguis First Nation

"While the tents pose a high risk to life safety, so too do the teepees in the manner they are currently being used. Those require supervision and guidance from elders in their proper use and maintenance, including how to manage a fire burning within them."

The teepees were installed after police dismantled warming huts donated to the neighbouring encampment; city officials cited bylaw and regulation breaches.

'Wanted to do something special'

Mitch Bourbonniere, director of service with Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatawin, was part of the group that erected the teepee that burned Tuesday. He said he was aware the city would relocate the residents of the camp.

Mitch Bourbonniere, director of service with Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatawin, was part of the group that erected the teepee that burned Tuesday. He said he was aware the city would relocate the residents of the camp.

"We did the first time as a message and a symbol that we love these folks, and we care about them, and we wanted to do something special for them," Bourbonniere said. "Through the symbolism and safety of the teepee, I think our goal was met. Over the holidays, this camp was visited every night by the Mama Bear Clan group," he said. "For four or five weeks, these folks felt like someone cared about them."

Bourbonniere said they don't plan to raise another teepee at the site, but will continue to patrol the area.

"We’re happy and proud that those teepees stood as long as they did, and we’re happy and proud that our most vulnerable folks got to feel special and loved, and we’re relieved that no one was hurt," he said.

“If we’re going to put a teepee up, there should be folks that would look after those teepees as well,” he added. “We can offer teepees as a warming place, as long as there is a host and help to look after the fire and the people.

“If we were ever to do it again, that’s the piece we would have to add.”

Jenna Wirch, an outreach worker with 13 Moons, an initiative of Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, was the organizer behind the first teepee provided to the encampment. Wirch hopes to provide another teepee to the homeless community in consultation with people who live in the area, elders and Thunderbird House.

"I need help," Wirch said. "I can't just do this all by myself. That's what I did before."

She called on people to donate teepee poles, canvas and firewood to help their "houseless relatives."

— Danielle Da Silva

At the time the teepees were erected, the city had allowed the structures to stay standing due to their sacred cultural and ceremonial significance.

"We understand that the teepees were established in a spiritual, healing context, and were donated with the best intentions," Driedger said. "However, to supply teepees and not provide support for their ongoing safe use is to house the homeless in unsafe circumstances.

"It is only through extraordinarily good fortune that there have not been any serious injuries or deaths in the previous fires. We need to learn from the experience of the fires, to date, to ensure the safety of the occupants."

​Coun. Sherri Rollins, chairwoman of the city's protection, community services, and parks committee, said the sacredness of the teepees can't be overstated, but she is concerned about safety of the homeless occupants.

"I'm deeply saddened that it burned down. I am deeply relieved that no one was hurt," Rollins said. "Life safety is of the utmost importance in the encampments and it is of utmost importance to the departments that serve the city to protect everyone."

Rollins said there valid concerns when a fire pit is placed in a camp.

"Important questions and concerns do need to be expressed about the resources that it takes," she said. "In some cases those resources are led within an encampment. In Osborne Village in particular, there are grandmas that look after part of the encampment and there's a real intentional community there.

"I think it's really important to acknowledge the resources that are needed."

— with files from Maggie Macintosh and Ryan Thorpe

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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