Big Man, also known as Roy Cardinal, the 51 year-old Cree Metis leader of the encampment, is done talking to the police. As far as he’s concerned they went back on a promise not to raid this camp, and there’s nothing more to talk about.
“Eagle feathers up, boys,” he says to those around him as he raises his grey and white eagle feather wings to the sky.
Three police officers step towards Big Man. Then chaos. Advocates yell, campers raise their hands in surrender, clouds of snow rise from black police boots as they charge a circle of supporters trying to protect Big Man.
That’s when I found myself becoming a part of this story.
I’m filming from about 10 feet away, one of several people covering the sweep, but the only journalist inside the police line. That’s when a police officer singles me out, steps in front of my camera and instructs me to stop doing my job.
Sergeant Amber Maze, a member of the Edmonton Police Service and a former candidate for the right-wing Wildrose Party, makes a beeline for me and says I have to leave the area, and get behind the line of yellow tape they’ve set up more than 40 feet away. Too far away to film, or even really see what was happening.
I identify myself as a journalist, and state clearly that I have a right to be there. They should be well-aware that high courts in two provinces have found police use of these “exclusion zones” to thwart media coverage of their actions unlawful.
I’m then grabbed and manhandled, before being cuffed by another officer and led away, paraded like a criminal in front of the TV news cameras. The cuffs were put on wrong, and I can feel a searing pain in my wrist.
All I can think about is my five-year-old daughter, who I’m supposed to pick up from kindergarten in a couple of hours. As I’m loaded into a paddy wagon I beg the officers holding me to adjust the cuffs that are causing shooting pain.
That’s when all my resolve broke, like a dam crumbling under the weight of an irresistible force. The shock of what had just happened wore off, and the emotions hit hard.
I sob as they jerk my arms around behind me, trying to loosen the restraints. It doesn’t really help.
There’s no warmth inside that cage. Arms uncomfortably tight behind my back, hearing the screams of the invisible disarray happening down the road, I pray for comfort as hot tears roll down my cheeks.
The descent into chaos
I wasn’t there to cover the police raid. When police arrived I was already inside their hastily erected exclusion zone, conducting interviews for an article about this Indigenous-led encampment — one of at least eight camps targeted for demolition by the city of Edmonton and its police force.
The contrast is stark. Within the hour this scene would descend into mayhem, and three people, including this journalist, would be arrested and charged with obstructing police operations. But for now, all is calm. Almost serene.
Inside a white nylon tent, eight people, including three children and a grandmother, sit around a smokeless portable fire pit fuelled by a small green can of propane.
The tent is shaped like a tipi, and belongs to Big Man, who has made his home here on a vacant lot owned by the city of Edmonton for the last six months.
His clothes and belongings are piled against the tent’s edges, helping to form a barrier against the bitter cold outside. The temperature would plunge below minus 40 that week.
Crouched atop the cot where he sleeps, Big Man tells his guests about an uprising he believes is dawning.
“The Native people are making a rise and you guys get to see it in your generation,” he motions excitedly towards three Cree siblings, Sage, 10, Mooswa, 11, and Turtle 14.
Their mother, dressed in camouflage gear and a black vest decaled with Indigenous warrior patches, sits next to Big Man. Her head nodding along to his words.
Today, her face is ceremonially painted black, white and red; she declares her name to be “Dancing Death Woman,” her spiritual persona reflecting the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She’s been at this encampment all week to support Big Man and other Indigenous people living here who are facing eviction, yet have nowhere else to go.
Edmonton Police Services have been prowling the encampment trying to enforce an injunction obtained by the City of Edmonton to dismantle “high-risk” encampments like Big Man’s, and they could arrive in force at any moment.
“I pity these people (out here); I try to help them because they’re not themselves. But they (the police) don’t care, the big guys. They just think that we gotta go. I think they got it all wrong, we were here first.”
He tells the children to speak up for what they believe in, from the heart and the spirit.
“We’re making things right for the people that deserve it. And that’s pretty swell! Welcome to the real power you guys,” Big Man throws a punch in the air and grins, a flare of inspiration gleaming out of his light blue eyes.
The sounds of the city outside are muted as if silenced by the pressing conversations unfolding inside the tipi.
“Always look for the truth, ok guys? We’re going to fix what’s been done wrong and we’re going to try to make it right,” continues Big Man.
He sporadically speaks sentences in Cree, while clutching an eagle feather wing and waving in a constant flow of visitors. Big Man knows what it’s like to live rough. He has spent most of his adult life in and out of jail after passing through the group home system as a teenager.
“I grew up hard… I got taken away when I was 11.”
Legacies of colonialism
Big Man’s mother was “out drinking somewhere,” running from his abusive father, he recalls. His Moshum and Kohkum raised him in Owl River, a small Metis community northwest of Lac La Biche, Alberta. It was a good life, even though they were poor, he says. Big Man affectionately refers to his childhood of growing up in a log cabin in the bush as an “Alice in Wonderland,” experience. “It was like living in a cocoon of happiness.”
He remembers the lessons his grandparents taught him and the deeply spiritual experiences they had out on the land, including learning how to tell when danger was approaching.
“I remember hiding underneath the bed, listening to the old man talk… and something comes up and you’d see the horses spook, they’d all be running outside… Kohkum would tell me, ‘Get down,’ and I’d get under the blanket. She’d cover me up.”
Those talks of his grandparents he overheard were the memories of residential school. The spooking of the horses was a sign that danger or evil spirits were imminently close. To his Kohkum, she was protecting him from being taken away.
“After I was taken, cause I was being difficult I guess,” Big Man found himself in a group home. “Six years later I got a big duffel bag for Christmas, and there was only that one present (under the tree) for me.”
I asked, “well, what’s this?” and (the group home worker) says, “pack your stuff, you’re going home.”
Years later, on exiting the remand centre, he heard the same words. “Pack your stuff, you’re outta here.”
Just then a tall, Blackfoot/Dene man known as Two-Guns enters the tipi. His long, black hair is tied smoothly into a low ponytail. He limps towards a seat to the left of Big Man, as a young helper and friend of Big Man’s named Cameron scurries to move another chair over to support Two-Gun’s injured leg.
“Here is your drum,” Two-Guns says as he takes out a small hand drum from a bag decorated with medicine wheel colors and hands it to Big Man.
“Oh no, that’s your drum now,” responds Big Man. “We decided amongst ourselves here in the camp, that it belongs to you now. For the stand you took, you deserve this.”
The day before, on Tuesday, January 9, Two-Guns was violently thrown to the ground by police after questioning an officer for allegedly pushing his wife, Kiya Tailleur, who is Cree.
Two-Guns and his wife are volunteers with the Bear Claw Patrol, an Indigenous-led organization that patrols the streets to help the unhoused and vulnerable. The couple were at the encampment to provide support ahead of the anticipated police raid.
Tailleur later told Ricochet Media and CTV News that Edmonton Police Constable Michael Zacharuk assaulted her, but Zacharuk claims Two-Guns assaulted him.
“I saw the video, but what happened? Did he hit her (your wife), or punch or push her?” asks Big Man.
“He pushed her, and he punched me,” answers Two-Guns, who explains that he put his hand up in front of Zacharuk and asked if he hit his wife.
“And then right off the bat,” Two-Guns mimes a jab with his fist, implying that the officer then hit him.
Videos circulating on social media of the incident show a chaotic scene of several police officer’s slamming Two-Guns down onto the frozen pavement.
Things got heated after I left the homeless encampment earlier. According to witnesses police punched & tasered (5 times) a young Native man from the encampment. This is the scene after he was cuffed. Complete chaos. People crying; one woman reciting the Our Father; advocate… pic.twitter.com/gqZ51YRBVZ— Brandi Morin (@Songstress28) January 10, 2024
“I found out that this officer was charged last year, charged with assault,” Two-Guns tells Big Man with a wide-eyed look.
Zacharuk was charged with assault causing bodily harm in 2022 after allegedly hurting a male in custody in 2019.
Other video footage shows multiple officers piling on Two-Guns. One officer puts a knee on his neck, and another deploys his taser gun. The unsettling scene led witnesses to believe he was tased several times. However, police later said the taser was not used on Two-Guns. Still, Two-Guns says he felt the electricity pulsating against his skin even though the taser may not have been activated.
“When I was on the ground, I told him (Zacharuk), ‘You’re guilty, you assaulted me and my wife,’” Two-Guns tells Big Man.
“I also told him, ‘I’m praying for you. I love you. I’m praying for your spirit because you wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t spiritually sick. But you’re gonna suffer and your spirit may walk in darkness for eternity for what you’re doing to these people on this land through these colonial powers.”
Big Man chimes in with, “Tapwe,” (meaning, “yes/for sure” in Cree).
“And you know what he told me?” asks Two-Guns.
“He told me, ‘I’ll see you in hell.’”
Meanwhile, in the social media videos of Two-Guns’ arrest, onlookers are heard screaming, yelling profanities, and decrying the actions of police; one young woman can be heard frantically sobbing, while she recites the Our Father prayer.
Two-Guns is handcuffed while a police barrier prevents anyone from getting too close. He is then loaded into an ambulance after stating his leg was injured. But Two-Guns says he was first taken to police headquarters downtown, given an opportunity to call a lawyer, and then taken to hospital where he was told by medical staff he likely suffered torn ligaments in his knee. From there he was transferred by police back to a jail cell and held until 10 p.m.
Charges against Two-Guns are pending.
“This event has affected every fabric of my being — it’s nothing new, I was born into genocide,” Two-Guns says, referring to the various injustices, such as systemic racism and colonial violence faced by Indigenous nations.
No where else to go
Dancing Death Woman, who also goes by the name Earth, is also a volunteer with Bear Claw Patrol. She’s attended several of these police “sweeps,” when officers clear out hundreds of people living in tent communities in Edmonton’s inner city. She believes the police tactics are cruel.
The police and provincial politicians have characterized unhoused people living in encampments as “violent” and “being preyed upon by organized crime” (according to Premier Danielle Smith). Earth says this is unfair.
Big Man’s camp is Indigenous-led, respectful, and not at all dangerous, she points out. Even a 68-year-old residential school survivor known as “Mama” lives in a tent here after losing her housing a month ago.
“There's nobody here with a weapon. Except you guys inciting,” Earth, who is 35, and stands just 5 foot 1, yelled at the police as they walked through the camp checking tents on January 9.
She too was once without a home and wandered the streets of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan as a young adult. Her mother had an argument with her aunt whom they were staying with when Earth was 18. The two were subsequently kicked out.
Adjusting to life on the streets was grueling. She learned to make friends fast to survive, she says.
All these years later, she now calls Edmonton home and studies Indigenous languages at Yellowhead Tribal College. She encourages her children to give back to the community by volunteering to feed the homeless or participating in Indigenous social justice events.
“Nobody is in there!” She sharply calls out to the police, blocking their entry to some of the tents.
“You want to house them? Is that what you want to do? When you have a home for them, you come back, ok? Not a shelter, either. You can’t just go into somebody’s home — this land has been here since time immemorial!”
Big Man passes Two-Guns a paper Tim Horton’s cup filled with sage and directs him to drop some onto the hot coals of his propane-powered heater.
“They (police) knew what they were doing (when they roughed you up), they wanted to create chaos,” Big Man says, his tone turning irritated.
“My work is dedicated to helping the people on the street. What they’re doing (the police) is stupid, they’re… trying to make a publicity stunt.”
The sage burns, its smoke drifting to the four corners of the tipi. The soothing aroma quells Big Man’s frustration.
He speaks about his friend Shay who, less than a week before, died of an overdose at the camp. He thought it was a joke when fellow campers came to tell him she was dead. She’d been sober. He had nursed her back to health, he says. Her death left him devastated.
Despite officials wanting the camp demolished, Big Man believes he’s supposed to stay at the camp, that there’s a spiritual reason for him to be there. He’s worked to help others who arrive, helping them detox off drugs or alcohol. They trust Big Man to treat them with dignity.
“I had one here recently when he was coming off it, it was draining. He was sweating. I kept talking to him for a few hours. He started calming down. Each day the same thing, for almost six days. But each day, one step lower in pain. Then I told him, ‘Are you ready to go to rehab’?”
Big Man says he’s tired; he’s done enough fighting in his life. He was living in a cockroach-infested apartment attempting to wean his ex-wife off heroin before he ran out of money and decided to pitch his tipi at the encampment.
“I've been through a lot. My spirit wants you guys to listen to us. We are not making trouble by staying here. It's us wanting to be left alone, to heal.”
Big Man feels confident he and the others living there are doing nothing wrong. And they have plenty of support from dozens of advocacy groups and individuals who’ve visited the encampment in solidarity.
“Just be there for them (the homeless, the struggling),” Big Man tells a group of visitors huddling around a fire flickering through a metal covering in the center of the camp.
‘How can you not be emotional?’
On Tuesday, Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood NDP MLA Janice Irwin, whose riding includes the inner-city encampments, emerged from Big Man’s tipi in tears.
“When you actually talk to people who live here, and you hear their stories of everything they’ve been through, the loss… how can you not be emotional?” she says.
“Housing is primarily a provincial responsibility. But the reality is you need all levels of governments working together. And we’ve seen, especially at the provincial level, an unwillingness to address the housing crisis. So I’m going to continue pushing for action and standing up for all my constituents, even those living outside.”
@JanisIrwin MLA MLA, Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, has been supporting the unhoused at every sweep of Edmonton’s homeless communities by the City & Police throughout her constituency.— Brandi Morin (@Songstress28) January 10, 2024
‘I’m a white, privileged politician who has a roof over her head. When you actually talk to… pic.twitter.com/0NTtYrszbz
The lot where the encampment sits is located along Rowland Road, near Edmonton’s downtown core. It’s approximately two acres in size surrounded by trees that shimmer with a fresh layer of frost. Beneath those trees are several tent structures, some covered in blue, orange or white tarps. Piles of garbage, broken bicycle parts, plastic bags filled with bottles, and a few ragged backpacks are strewn along makeshift pathways through a fresh layer of snow.
A lone red dress hanging from a tree branch dances in the wind as snowflakes fall onto patchy blankets wrapped around a few camp dwellers sitting near the outdoor fire.
The temperatures are dropping fast. By the weekend the piercing cold will become lethal, going to minus 40 with the wind chill.
One road next to the camp is busy. Streams of traffic hurry along with passersby bundled up in winter gear, faces hidden behind scarves and hats that shield them from the biting cold.
This group is ready to survive the harsh realities of the coming deep freeze inside their tents, equipped with propane heaters and the warmth of their most precious commodity — each other.
Although their faces are etched with the lines of hardships, telling the stories of their troubled lives, they find solace in the connections they share. Their search for warmth, sustenance and hope from each other is a lifeline.
“Now you see what we live for. We help others. Because we have bad lives. We're not trying to ask for brownie points to go into a good life. But we're ready to do this. Who stands with us? Woo!”
Big Man urges the group into war cries and shouts of unity.
The people living here have created a community atmosphere, they’ve even made friends with the neighbours, says Big Man, who they treat with respect.
“We need them (homeless) to live, not die. And we need them to prosper and get better. And we won't have to worry about our kids disappearing or bad things happening,” says Big Man as he pauses and looks up to the sky to acknowledge his creator.
“This land was never for sale — it was for us to flourish and be better.”
Police arrive to sweep the camp
Back in the tipi on the morning of January 10, Big Man and Two-Guns are drumming and singing traditional songs. Earth unzips the canvas door and alerts them that police are here.
Outside, the snow is getting heavier as officers dressed in blue begin gathering inside the yellow crime scene tape now surrounding the encampment.
That’s when more than a dozen supporters, including Earth’s three children, start congregating around the fire pit.
The day before, police told Big Man they were going to let his camp stand after they successfully negotiated the removal of other structures filled with various debris. He wasn’t expecting them to come back to evict his camp so soon. He says they promised to hold off at least until a court hearing on extending the injunction happened.
Big Man asks Earth to play the “Crazy Horse Warrior Song” on her Bluetooth speaker as he steps out to speak to police who’ve gathered on a small mound above the camp.
Flanked on one side by Alvin, an Indigenous man who lives at the camp, and Two-Guns on the other, the three hold ceremonial items like staffs and eagle feather wings.
Big Man mutters, “Our people are done suffering.”
They walk towards the police.
Roy Cardinal, an unhoused First Nations man and adopted uncle to many people struggling on the streets of Edmonton, sings in Cree inside his teepee on city property near downtown. Police were tasked with enforcing a city injunction to dismantle this camp and have displaced… pic.twitter.com/XdI2Wo92kW— Brandi Morin (@Songstress28) January 9, 2024
Police want everyone to leave, but Big Man has questions about the incident with Two-Guns the day before.
“Does anyone have acknowledgement for what happened to this young man here? I saw the video… we can’t keep getting pushed around, mister,” he pauses to ask an officer his name and addresses him.
“What makes you think I’m gonna back down from my rights as an Indian, Native, tell me? I know you’re going to feel sorry for me when you do what you gotta do…”
Sergeant Maze interjects to advise Big Man they are there to take the camp down. “We have a warm bus to offer you here, to offer all you folks a warm place to go,” she says.
“For how long?!” someone yells.
The conversation heats up and Big Man tells the officer it’s not going to happen, they don’t want to go to a homeless shelter.
Maze raises her voice and yells, “You can leave peacefully, or you will be forcibly removed. If you do not leave, your encampments will be cleaned up no matter what and you could be arrested for obstruction… Do you understand?”
Then the police move in, arrests begin, and I get led away in handcuffs, losing my chance to tell the rest of this story.
‘You are trespassing on Indigenous land!’
As I sit in the darkness of the paddy wagon, the voice of a young woman chastising police while they load her into an adjacent cell in the vehicle echoes through the cage.
“This is Treaty 6 territory! You are trespassing on Indigenous land!! Fu#$ you!!” she screams.
They transport us a few blocks away to the police headquarters. I see the face of my fellow arrestee — white skin, green eyes, and red hair, age 21. She had been the helper in the tipi with Big Man, named Cameron. She was feisty and brazenly defying the police while shouting support for Indigenous rights and Big Man.
A female officer searches me and puts me in a jail cell with a metal toilet, sink and a concrete slab against the wall.
I was held in that cell for five hours, let out only to make phone calls to arrange for my daughter to be picked up, and to contact my editor so he could arrange for a lawyer.
My adrenaline was high, but I sat there silently.
Flashbacks of past traumas from my childhood became a terrifying presence in that cold confinement. I shivered. The thought of being held for up to 72 hours, as one police officer threatened, was daunting. I told myself to breathe.
Echoes from other prisoners and police voices on the other side of the metal door were my connection to the unknowns of what was happening. I tuned out.
But when I lay down on the concrete and closed my eyes, I saw the agony of the constraints and displacement our people have endured for centuries. Time stood still in an awful nightmare. And there was nowhere to escape.
Suddenly keys rattled and the thick metal door opened. An officer told me I could leave after I signed a paper acknowledging I was being charged with obstruction with a promise to appear in Edmonton court on February 1.
I hear Big Man in a cell down the hall hollering that he’s “Ok” to Cameron.
‘Rise up! Rise up! All the Native people, rise up!’
When I arrived home later that evening, I watched videos online of what had unfolded after I was prevented from doing my job and subsequently arrested. Big Man is knocked to the ground and subdued. Blood is seen pooling in his mouth, clusters of snow packed into his graying hair, and his sweater hiked up, exposing part of his belly.
“Rise up! Rise up! All the Native people, rise up!” voice breaking, he pleads to the cameras as police haul him away.
Earth’s children are pushed back by police and Earth is thrown to the ground, cutting her leg in the scuffle.
City workers, aided by the presence of police, swiftly took down the encampment. They loaded the tents and everyone’s belongings, including Big Man’s, into the back of their trucks and dumped them at a nearby landfill. Cameron’s purse containing her ID, bank cards and cell phone were also thrown in the dump.
Taken last night at Bissell Center in Edmonton- they were over capacity and people standing outside. It was nearly -40! Told Kohkum’s out there, crying. They started a fire to keep warm. @ABDanielleSmith @JasonNixonAB there is not enough emergency shelter spaces unlike you’re… pic.twitter.com/R5MKQK8ukT— Brandi Morin (@Songstress28) January 13, 2024
Big Man was released the following day wearing the only clothes he now owns. After visiting the Bissell Center, an inner city outreach organization, and giving an inspirational speech to his street comrades, he went to stay with his sister Rosanne who lives nearby.
It’s a temporary place to lay his head, but he’s warm and safe for the time being. “Mama,” was taken by police to Niginan Housing Ventures, an Indigenous led non-profit that has set up emergency shelter spaces along Stony Plain Road in Edmonton’s west end. Chad, another camper, moved his tent down the street on the edge of the river valley. As the temperatures plummeted he huddled alone inside, keeping warm with a candle. Arvin and a friend are put up in a hotel a few days later by the Bear Claw Patrol so they can shower and warm up for a day.
The following week, the City of Edmonton held a special council meeting to declare a state of emergency on homelessness.
Edmonton is home to the second highest population of Indigenous peoples in Canada, where six percent of the city’s citizens identify as Indigenous. And of Edmonton’s unhoused population, 60 per cent are Indigenous.
The motion, brought forward by Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, sparked intense and heated discussion. Sohi says that the city needed to declare a state of emergency to help address the “symptoms,” of the escalating number of people experiencing homelessness.
“If we don’t take this seriously, if we don’t treat this as a long-term emergency, more and more Edmontonians will fall through the cracks and become homeless,” he says.
In the gallery advocates shout at officials —one man yells, “Displacement! Genocide! Genocide! And you guys don’t want to call it out!” He is detained by security and forcibly led out of the chamber room.
A historic level of rising homelessness
According to a recent count, the number of homeless people in Edmonton stands at a staggering 3,170, which Mayor Sohi says is an all-time high. The mayor also expressed concern over the rising death toll among those without shelter, with 301 fatalities recorded last year compared to 156 in 2022.
Despite having a budget allocation of $183 million for affordable housing in this cycle, Sohi says the city is struggling to meet the growing demand. In his proposal, the mayor's focus was not directly on encampments or shelter spaces, but rather on finding long-term solutions such as housing. He suggested convening an emergency meeting with provincial and federal ministers, as well as representatives from the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations. Additionally, he proposed establishing a new task force and allocating $3.5 million from the city's funds to initiate its operations.
Provincial officials responded to the mayor’s initiative with criticism, denying a state of emergency exists.
On Wednesday, at a provincial press conference attended by officials responsible for housing, along with Indigenous leaders, Edmonton Police chief Dale McFee declared his police force will accelerate its efforts to tear down all homeless encampments. He added that police work with “careful consideration” when handling encampments.
“There is no evidence, and I want to be very clear on this, that EPS officers have been acting anything but responsive, kind and proactive in the tragic circumstances they see every day. They spend a significant amount of time with partners identifying the most dangerous encampments. Those rife with gang activity, fire hazards, and structural concerns. They spend a significant amount of time coordinating resources to ensure the residents have options to support a life outside the encampments.”
At the same press conference the Alberta government announced it’s opening a “navigation and support center” for people being displaced by the encampment evictions.
Confederacy of Treaty Six Grand Chief Cody Thomas, of the Enoch Cree Nation near Edmonton, told Ricochet that intergenerational trauma needs to be considered when dealing with the over-representation of Indigenous Peoples on the streets. He explained that First Nations are not allocated adequate federal funding to address the housing crisis in their own communities, let alone the crisis unfolding in urban centers.
“What are the key solutions to solving the problem? I’m an intergenerational survivor. My family’s been through it… how can we heal when we still have tears in our eyes,” he says.
“I want to be able to help the next brother, the next sister… None of us should be outside protesting. We need to be at the table to find solutions. And when we get into the conversation of addiction or trauma, mental health, what resources do we really have to support that? The intergenerational trauma that we experience, the addiction, that’s how we are blanketing, that’s how we’re protecting ourselves.
“I hear from a lot of chiefs, it almost feels like we’re beggars in our own lands. Well, that’s gonna change.”
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