Camp Pekiwewin is a project started by a collective of frontline outreach workers, Black, Indigenous, and racialized community organizers and unhoused or formerly unhoused people in Edmonton. They began occupying a green space currently designated as an overflow parking lot for a nearby baseball stadium in the Rossdale neighborhood on July 24. Camp Pekiwewin provides food, water, shelter and other resources to unhoused and at-risk people who the government has ignored before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its demands are broad, and cover issues that commonly affect Indigenous, racialized, queer, and unhoused people the world over.
The world over is an essential frame to view this in, as Pekiwewin, while being fresh in the minds of those seeing it for the first time - is not new. This kind of solidarity driven organizing that supports and centers unhoused people is done all across the world.
Camp Pekiwewin diptych. Photo on left by Austin Mihkwâw. Photo on right by Pihêsiw Crane. Head to the bottom of the story to learn how to support Camp Pekiwewin.
As recently as two years ago, there were camps similar to this one all across Canada, with camps in Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, and Toronto. The most notable of these was Regina’s Justice for our Stolen Children camp, led by the Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation, and covered beautifully in Briarpatch Magazine. The peaceful camp had a broad list of demands related to the rights of Indigenous children, and was torn down by the Provincial Capital Commission after 108 days, citing permit and bylaw violations.
For Regina, this was nothing new. In 1935, the On-to-Ottawa Trek, a protest driven primarily by unhoused and unemployed people, was violently broken up by the RCMP, who shot into the crowd with pistols after denying them the right to board trains. The tent cities that emerged out of the Great Depression are excellent material for government funded pageantry, even as new tent cities and growing issues of homelessness across the country receive very little government money.
Settler colonial and capitalist states, like Canada, rely on making unhoused people relatively invisible in order to continue growth and exploitation. Given the government’s refusal to respect its treaty obligations or even consider reparations, the inevitability of homelessness and the state’s disinterest in dealing with it becomes clear. Homelessness is simply another form of settler violence perpetrated against colonized people.
Violence against the racialized, unhoused and the poor are one of the only ways the Canadian state treats people as equally as it says it does. Violence against the unhoused also has an outsized effect on Black and Indigenous folks and is an essential part of white supremacy and settler colonialism. And as we deal with the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass evictions that are taking place homelessness is going to be inflicted on even more people. At the core of Camp Pekiwewin’s demands are eliminating state violence against unhoused people and treating them with the dignity and respect that is afforded everyone else. You and everyone you know is a lot more likely to be homeless than to ever be a billionaire, it’s time to start organizing like it.
A Global Tradition of Resistance
The Pekiwewin camp is not a uniquely Canadian tradition. Similar projects have happened all over the world.
In Japan, the Indigenous Ainu people, who are often looked down on in society and hide their identities so as to blend in to broader Japanese culture, maintain a culture of direct action and an assertion of land claim to northern Islands in the Hokkaido prefecture that have been both colonized by Japan and Russia at different points in history. Similar to Canada, the Japanese government has formally recognized the Ainu people, but has refused to recognize land rights and provide other material supports. The Ainu movement, while often overlooked by the western world, has benefited greatly from allyship and an education in tactics done in coalition with other Indigenous peoples. One of the most notable examples of this was an anti G-8 protest camp held in solidarity with Ainu people and against globalization in 2008.
African Indigenous peoples have also been overlooked as states have flattened the distinctions between Indigenous peoples and the dominant culture in any given country. Indigenous tribes from across the continent have worked in coalition with each other to protect land rights and rights of land use, while challenging state violence that leaves Indigenous peoples landless and effectively homeless. Land occupied by tribes that is encroached on or subject to seizure is challenged constantly through litigation.
In India, historically lower caste Indigenous peoples, such as the Adivasi, face evictions numbering in the millions, sometimes quite violently, to make way for megaprojects and dams. These challenges have been resisted to and led largely by Adivasi women with direct action and occupation, in coalition with elements of India’s professional and academic class, the church, and other Indigenous tribes. These tribes have used a diversity of tactics to challenge displacement, including occupation of lands set to be bulldozed, hunger strikes, and human chains.
An Adivasi protest march in 2003. Photo by Simon Williams/Ekta Parishad.
The Sem Terra Movement (SMT) in Brazil is an organized collective of landless Indigenous farmers. They occupy and farm privately owned and unused land and by doing so exercise a piece of Brazillian law that allows them to seize control of that land, redistribute it to members and work it for social good. The success of this movement, made up of landless and Indigenous farmers, owes a lot to legal challenges supported by white allies, and direct coalition with organizations that support black, poor, and LGBTQ peoples in Brazil. Membership has one qualifier: You must participate in an occupation in order to be considered a member of the SMT.
Occupy Wall Street owes no small amount of debt to Indigenous occupations of American federal land and buildings throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, starting with the 1969 Alcatraz occupation by the American Indian Movement. The way decisions were made and group meetings were held at Zucotti Park gave Indigenous people a voice in spaces typically run by settlers. One of the overlooked elements of Occupy was racialized organizers working to serve unhoused Indigenous people during the occupation. Posters plastered across New York during OWS declared Manhattan “Occupied since 1625.”
And there are countless more.
These movements are marked by occupation, co-opting of colonial legal frameworks, and a reliance on large and diverse groups of people working together to return land to its original inhabitants. They’re reliant on numbers and coalitions of organizations with coordinated memberships working toward common, intersectional goals.
Land taken, land taken back
All of these movements have one thing in common: the use, claim, occupation, and utilization of land. Homelessness and eviction are baked into how settler colonialism works. Frantz Fanon addresses this in his book, The Wretched of the Earth: “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity….All he has ever seen on his land is that he can be arrested, beaten, and starved with impunity.” Camp Pekiwewin organizer Veronica Fuentes maintains that Pekiwewin, for all of its supports, demands, and resources, is primarily a project meant to return dignity to unhoused Indigenous people.
Violence, theft and alienation from the land is furthered by gentrification, development, and transformation of land from rural to urban. Urbanization often obscures historic relationships to the land and the people who have lived on it. Just because there’s a Starbucks there now doesn’t mean it wasn’t a sacred place for thousands of years.
As Fuentes puts it, “Urban centres are no less native because they're urban centres. Indigenous people who are unhoused are no less tied to this territory than the ones who live outside of cities…There probably hasn’t been prayer or ceremony like this in hundreds of years. There probably haven’t been songs sung on this ground in hundreds of years...it’s so deeply neglectful of the relationship we had, that we have, that we will continue to have with this space, known as the city of Edmonton.”
Power in Intersections
Black and Indigenous solidarity in Pekiwewin and the world over is a rebuke to capitalism and colonialism – A project that relies on dividing us by race and class to prevent our collective liberation. State rhetoric about Black and Brown people taking jobs away from settlers has been expressed in Canada through head taxes, immigration bans, and settler violence, but aren’t unique to Canada either. The failed Rand Rebellion of 1922 in South Africa saw white miners start an armed uprising not against mine owners but against the black workers they were bringing in as a cheaper, more exploitable labour source. Labour action that emphasized racial solidarity, such as the 1934 International Longshore and Warehouse Union strike in Seattle, on the other hand, were successful.
The multiracial alliance of black slaves and white indentured servants that formed the backbone of the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia frightened state power to such a degree that it created a legal framework that cemented formal and state sanctioned white supremacy. This set the stage for an even more extreme and violent form of plantation slavery and anti-Black racism in the US than existed prior, while also creating modern American whiteness. Modern white supremacy began as a fearful response by the wealthy to solidarity across racial lines.
Divide and conquer is a tried and tested strategy of the rich and powerful. By putting issues specific to certain communities against each other their common struggle is overlooked. To combat it we must step outside our comfort zone and organize with other communities. Winnipeg academic, Melissa May Ling Chung talks about this in a 2010 essay, “land claims for Indigenous peoples, racial profiling against Muslims and others, redress for the Asian Head Tax…” all of this, “can be further advanced through coalition building across various groups and communities...Indigenous and racialized communities must recognise this classic divide-and-conquer strategy that those in power use to divide them.” Camp Pekiwewin is a perfect example of these divide and conquer tactics being overcome.
Speaking to how the Canadian state divides black and Indigenous people to isolate their struggles as distinct and not similar, Fuentes says "our shared liberation is contingent on the liberation of Indigenous and black communities, our LGBTQ communities.”
Building Power in Edmonton
Volunteers at Camp Pekiwewin. Photo by Austin Mihkwâw.
While not a revolutionary idea, Ling Chung brings up an important question: Are we building these cross-cultural alliances? If not what is stopping us from building them and what’s the best way to start?
For Fuentes, the answer is simple, “It comes organically. I think this is only possible because of momentum built over the last few years, through relationships...lived experiences. It’s by no coincidence we understand the politic [sic] of what’s going on.”
Speaking to Veronica on the phone, there’s a constant stream of interruptions. People bringing water, a generator, supplies. Veronica mentioned, offhand, that there was an overdose on site a day prior, and volunteers at the camp were equipped to provide medical assistance quickly and with expertise. When I made the mistake of identifying a single group (Beaver Hills Warriors) of organizing the camp, Veronica was quick to remind me of the fact that it was put together by multiple individuals and organizations, as a reminder of urban land still being treaty land, as a response to how Alberta has failed the unhoused during COVID-19, and to Edmonton Police Service’s constant assault on tent cities and homeless encampments.
Veronica says, “Police work against housing workers by consistently displacing people in a way that makes it difficult for housing workers to find them… housing workers can find people now… the first day the cops came in here and said, you gotta go. We said no, and the optics of them coming in here, slashing the teepee the way they slash every other houseless person’s dwelling...they won’t do that. They couldn’t do that. The backlash from the community would be too much. ”
The demands, and the solidarity driven by Camp Pekiwewin are clear. They are demands led by a multi-cultural coalition, that uplift everyone, even settlers. What the city of Edmonton and police will do is unknown, though there’s a rich and violent history from which to make a prediction. But like every movement and expression of solidarity that came before it, Camp Pekiwewin will never be an end, but a beginning.
If you want to support Camp Pekiwewin they are accepting in-person donations of necessities (food, water, cash, warm weather clothing, rope, tarps etc.) at the Donation Tent on 96 Street between 104 and 103 Avenues next to ReMax Field between 12pm and 8pm. Volunteers at the camp are always welcome especially if you're trained in first aid, have done overdose response training or are a nurse. If you'd like to support the camp with a cash donation the best way is to send an e-transfer to Black Lives Matter Edmonton at [email protected] with the note 'Pekiwewin.'