Mohkinstsis Camp rises again to celebrate all peoples of Calgary
Indigenous camp near Calgary courthouse is returning with a new purpose
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The front lawn of the Calgary courthouse was conspicuously empty this week, after the organizers of a small camp built to show support for Indigenous youth quietly packed up their belongings and left the site.
But Garret C. Smith, who organized the camp following a rally in remembrance of Tina Fontaine on Sunday, Feb. 25, is rebuilding the site, which was commemorated with a ceremony on Sunday, March 11, after organizers took the opportunity to regroup and come up with specific goals and directives.
Smith said the original camp wasn’t taken down by force, but by choice, as the Soaring Eagles Camp in Winnipeg which the Calgary camp was modelled after had also come down.
“Once the camp was taken down it was very apparent that people missed it, and I was getting absolutely bombarded with messages asking, “What happened?’ It just became really obvious that the community was crying out for a space that was safe, and welcoming and warm,” he said.
“We’re rebuilding it with a more direct initiative, and a more probable outcome.”
The new camp, called Mohkinstsis, the Blackfoot word for elbow, and the traditional name for Calgary, will be a hub for community support and reconciliation.
Originally created in solidarity with the Soaring Eagles Camp set up at the Manitoba Legislature, Smith wanted to bring awareness to the disparity that Indigenous youth in Canada experience, as evidenced by the not guilty verdicts found in the deaths of Colten Boushie of the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan and Tina Fontaine of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.
Smith said the camp’s organizers have two specific initiatives going forward: a healing component within the Aboriginal community, and community building with non-Indigenous people.
“We’re going to be implementing ceremonies, traditional protocols, access to elders and resources within the First Nations community to basically heal ourselves and rebuild ourselves,” said Smith.
Anyone can visit the camp during the day to learn or share ideas, but Smith said they will also be focusing on creating specific dialogues with delegates from the city and province.
“We’re hoping that this can become a model that other First Nations across the country can emulate as well to help build community relations,” Smith said.
Smith’s father and grandmother travelled from the Piikani Nation in Alberta to witness the work being done to rebuild the campsite and participate in the ceremony celebrating its return.
“We’re very proud of him for taking these steps forward,” said Iinipooka, or BuffaloChild, Smith’s father.
“I told him once, Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream for his people, and I’m sure [Garret] has a dream for our people as well. Only difference is he’s not including just First Nations people, he’s including everybody.”
Smith’s grandmother, Adeline Smith, who raised him as a child, said she has some concerns about his safety while staying at the urban campsite.
“Because of the injustices that have been done to our people, I fear for his life of course, but what he’s trying to promote is peace and unity so all I can do is pray that Creator protects him,” she said.
“There are always radicals out there. From when I was his age, we didn’t have too much to worry about, but today it seems to be getting worse.”
While the original camp caused some concerns with the property management company at the Calgary Courts Centre, Smith said he’s had very little pushback from the city and has been working with Alan Chamberlain, the Aboriginal liaison officer with the Calgary Police Service, who “has been an amazing resource for us.”
Support for the camp was overwhelmingly positive, with food, blankets and other supplies being donated regularly. The only major hindrance being Calgary’s unpredictable weather.
Smith said volunteers worked all through the day on Saturday to clear the slush from the front of the courthouse, and that the melting snow had rotted their tipi poles, but “if we just need to set up a little canvas tent for me to sleep in for the night then we’re going to do that. It’s just how our people roll, we just go with the flow.”
Indeed, illustrating the resiliency of Canada’s Indigenous people is one of the goals in mind for Smith.
“This might be more of a personal thing than it is a cultural thing of mine, but my personal initiative as I move ahead with this is to really show Canadians, and show the world, who we are as Blackfoot people, as Niitsitapiiksi people. And that word, the best way it can be translated into English as far as I know is ‘the real human beings’.
“Aside from all the societal issues that you see out there, I wanted to basically take a step back in time. In that way, it’s showing the community who we really are; there’s a sense of understanding that can be built, and ultimately a sense of healing for the community.”
Smith visited over 30 schools in the area to talk about his experiences.
“The first question the kids would ask was, ‘Are the Indians still here?’ So, right here in our own community, in our own territory, the Blackfoot Territory, they don’t even know that we exist,” said Adeline, who is immensely proud of her grandson’s vision to both educate and create a safe and supportive space to do so.
“There’s always hope,” she added, “and our young people are coming up and have visions of what they would like to see for us to move forward instead of backwards.”