Coming Home: Interview with Camp pekiwewin

A sign at camp that reads “pekiwewin” Relief + Prayer Camp. Source: pekiwewin instagram.

In the Cree language, nêhiyawêwin, “pekiwewin” is a word for the act of coming home, or ‘inbound’ as a definition. It is deeply significant to the folks who live on the site, especially the urban indigenous community members who are displaced and are living rough in Amiskwaciwâskahikan.

At 4:00 am on July 24th, Shima Robinson showed up to the pekiwewin site to help build the structures that would quickly become the initial service tents for the camp. At that time, she had no ideas or expectations about how this direct action would manifest and grow. Since that morning, however, pekiwewin camp has become the largest shelter space for the houseless community of Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton). She explains that, through her work at camp, “I have learned and affirmed so much about my own history of houselessness, my connection to my fellow citizens and my commitment to understanding and helping to manifest recognition and respect for the human rights and ways of knowing of the urban Indigenous communities in Amiskwaciwâskahikan.”

pekiwewin aims to not only to fill the massive service gap created by the closure of day shelters maintained by the City of Edmonton during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to recognize and advocate for the need to create better solutions to the complex problems faced by our communities.

Shima is the media liaison with Camp pekiwewin and took some time out of her busy life to talk to the The Local Good.

To start off, can you tell us more about yourself? Who are you and how did you get involved with Camp Pekiwewin?

I am a longtime resident of Amiskwaciwâskahikan (also known as Edmonton) in that I was born and raised here. I’ve become increasingly involved with activist actions over the last six or seven years. Currently, I’m involved in Black Lives Matter YEG and now also working alongside Beaver Hills Warriors, primarily as the media liaison for pekiwewin.

But I am a lot of things. I’m an artist. I’m a masters student at the University of Alberta, a spoken word poet, I’m a conscientious community member. I do a lot of volunteering, a lot of performance and community-oriented performance work. I’m employed at APIRG, which is a Public Interest Research Group –  I am the working group and program coordinator there.

What is Camp Pekiwewin, and what is its main goal/purpose?

Camp Pekiwewin is so many things, but most importantly it is an emergency relief prayer camp that centers Indigenous ceremony and is run primarily by Indigenous two-spirit and femme people 

pekiwewin is also a direct action community solidarity effort. It is a mutual aid effort that allows people to understand what basic human needs are in terms of more than just material things. It is a focus on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which includes food, clothing, shelter, et cetera, but also needs that are deeply kinship based and social – it’s all about the relational capacity we build to help each other.

Why choose that location for the Camp?

Rossdale Flats is traditionally a site of ceremony, a site of trade and a gathering place for Indigenous peoples of various nations. It has been since time immemorial, until the use of that land or the stewardship of that land was interrupted by the colonial presence.

The City of Edmonton has been repurposing it as an overflow parking lot, for about the last twenty five years. That is a slap in the face to the significance of this piece of land.

I’m told that the land just to the West was a Sun Dance site, which is a very important observance for and practice of Indigenous folks from different nations. 

As well, this land is Crown Land. So it is not technically owned by the City, it is used by the City. It was a strategic position to take up space on that particular piece of land. 

Can you explain the meaning behind the name Camp pekiwewin?  

In the Cree language, nêhiyawêwin, “pekiwewin” is a word for the act of coming home, or ‘inbound’ as a definition. It is deeply significant to the folks who live on the site, especially the urban indigenous community members who are displaced and are living rough in Amiskwaciwâskahikan.

If they know the word, it has immediate resonance and if they don’t know the word they immediately learn about its meaning… Everybody is talking and learning about why camp is called “pekiwewin” and what the significance of the name is.

“pekiwewin” is also significant because these folks who live on the site, who live rough on this territory, are often denied the right to call a place home by the antagonisms of the law. So having a place where they can return to every day is very significant. It’s establishing the right to maintain and build relationships of trust, kinship, solidarity, and support, with the ability to return to a spot and have your things still be there. Having a consistent place to return to, to keep belongings, is a huge need among folks who live rough because they’re constantly displaced, moved along, asked to leave… and of course, tent slashing by police and peace officers is still happening regularly all over the City.

But the idea of coming home is not just for the people who live on the site, but for the people who work on the site – for the volunteers and the organizers who are all doing volunteer work. There are no paid staff. We are all deeply involved in the reconfiguration of what it means to be a citizen here in Amiskwaciwâskahikan, and that starts with recognizing that folks who live rough still have a right to call somewhere home.

How can individuals help support  Camp and those who are currently staying there? 

Donation needs change pretty regularly, of course. Right now, because the weather is changing, we need winter clothes – lots of them. Anything from jackets to warm boots, sweaters, sweat pants, warm woolen socks,  and clean, fresh, brand new packaged underwear is always a need. 

We are also in need of volunteers who will be able to spend a few hours on site – it’s very flexible depending on people’s capacity. We need volunteers to be on site to hand out donations, to sanitize donations, to make sure that things are running smoothly, and we are currently in great need of kitchen volunteers. We need people to help prepare and serve meals. Sponsored meals are also an excellent way to get involved or to get your group of friends and family involved together – this means meals that are prepped offsite and then brought to the site for distribution. 

We always need water refills and help hauling garbage away, especially those with a truck or large vehicle who want to help. Even though we have a 20 yard dumpster on site, donated by the city, we sometimes need the garbage hauled away when it gets too full because if it’s too full, we get a fine. Water is a constant need, as it is used to cook, to drink, for hand washing stations, cleaning dishes, etc.

A lot of support needed can be done kind of on an ad hoc basis, really. The best way to find out about specific needs at any given time is to follow the pekiwewin Instagram account, which is updated regularly and will direct people to various changing needs of the camp. 

One of the quickest ways to help is with financial donations. Any amount that seems feasible for an individual to share can be sent via e-transfer to – please include the word “pekiwewin” in the notes, just to differentiate between money that goes to the camp and money that goes to BLM. It is important to note, however, that this is not a protest camp and it is not being run by Black Lives Matter YEG. Though some volunteers, such as myself, may work with both BLM YEG as well as pekiwewin, the two are not connected. Donations are also going through BLM YEG, as they have the capacity and financial resources currently to take on that responsibility, but it is not a project of BLM YEG whatsoever. 

Can you tell me more about the demands pekiwewin has made for the City of Edmonton?

Yes, we have made six demands:

One is that the city put an end to tent slashing, pepper spraying, and other destruction or theft of people’s property, belongings and dwellings.  

The second demand is an accessible emergency response fund for frontline workers who work with folks who are houseless or who have challenges around housing and needs around mental health care and addictions. 

The third demand is for free transit. The way some people enter this city, or situations they face within the city sometimes necessitates that they be able to get around without any money, which is difficult in a large spread out city like Edmonton, especially in the colder months. With less contacts, less friends with vehicles, people have to use the bus system. However, the bus costs seven dollars for one round trip. If someone does not have bus fare, the current bylaws state that that person be charged with trespassing on their second time without their bus fare, and they’ll be jailed because they are in violation of that law. This leads to a criminal record, which of course decimates the chances of getting a job, which then increases their chances of becoming houseless. We don’t believe we should be jailing people just because they do not have money for the bus.

The fourth demand is, importantly, to honour Indigenous treaty titles by allowing the grounds of pekiwewin Camp to remain a site of indigenous ceremony and to return that land to the stewardship of indigenous peoples.

The fifth demand is a commitment to create more transitional support services with a harm reduction lens for community members, and to follow health recommendations to not displace people during the pandemic.

The last demand is that the City take on a formal harm-reduction focused review of  bylaws that perpetually erode the security, safety and dignity of people with no fixed address. The current racist bylaws lead to all sorts of issues, as outlined before, and we believe a proper review will also help to achieve our other demands as well.

What action has the city taken in the 60+ days that Camp has been operating?

The City of Edmonton responded by immediately heightening the level of policing in the area, which is not helpful. 

That said, they have established a community task force with some city managers and other folks from City Hall who meet with us once a week to determine how we are going to work through the demands. They are working with us directly on the need to find housing and other supports for people, and hearing us out on our detailed elaboration of our demands. So, we are making some progress, reiterating very specifically some of the needs and how those needs can be improved upon and or realized, but it is incremental on a weekly basis, and it is mostly conversation and not direct action, so far.

The Mayor came to visit the site four weeks ago, which was strained, because of the relational clash when a rich man with political power sits down with members of the community at Camp pekiwewin. So when the Mayor and Scott McKean came to speak with community members, there was a great divide between the citizens of this city and the representatives, who don’t know or understand their needs. 

We will keep trying with the City, to engage with our demands and recognize that the city provides funding to agencies and organizations that can do the work we are trying to do here. 

The best thing to do is to make your voice heard. Start by emailing or calling or writing a letter to your city councilors. Post on their social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook. All city councilors have their Twitter, Facebook, email, phone number and mailing address on the City of Edmonton website. So go on the website to find out who your councilor is and to send them a letter, express your feelings on their social media. Part of the democratization of the human voice is through social media and ensuring your elected officials are paying attention to the voice of the citizenry. 

So beyond donating and volunteering – whether you can do either of those things or not, because you’re strapped for cash or you don’t have time, which is absolutely understandable – this communication strategy would help a lot. 

What can individuals do to help ensure the six demands are met?

We can see just from the sheer numbers of individual people who have donated money, thousands of people care deeply about this issue and support what we are doing here. So it makes a lot of sense for the City Councillors, as representations of our democracy, to pay attention to the citizens who are voicing their concerns. 

When the community members at Pekiwewin have no suitable representative to voice their concerns for them, the citizenry standing up for us with material support and to amplify our situation, our voice and the idea that we all deserve dignity, respect, and a place to live – that is key.

If you are interested in learning more, we highly recommend you follow pekiwein on Instagram to keep up to dateyou can also check out the pekiwewin website for additional information and resources – including a form letter you can send to the Mayor and your City Councillor!

We also hope you can join the Local Good on September 30th for a fundraiser to support the winterization of Camp pekiwewin! The online event will feature live performances from local artists and provide a chance to hear from organizers of pekiwewin. Invite your friends and family on facebook to join us to connect and take action – tickets are $10 but you are encouraged to donate further if you are able.