William Hudson stood on the steps of the Manitoba Legislative Building last June, thinking about what he would say and who would be there to hear him say it.
He’d driven there in his pickup truck, along with his wife and box after box of supplies, arriving early to set up for a rally he never wanted to have, that every father prays will never be necessary. A few dozen people were sitting out on the grass, some holding signs with his daughter’s name — Eishia — spelled out in paint and in permanent marker.
That alone took Hudson’s breath away for a moment: there were certain people — family, neighbours, colleagues, friends, elders — he knew would be there to honour his little girl, only 16 years old, who had been shot and killed by a member of the Winnipeg Police Service two months earlier after an alleged liquor store robbery in Sage Creek. But many of these people were strangers — faces he’d never seen before. If not by surprise, it caught him by grace: these people were there for her without ever having heard her speak, to help him and his family heal during a pandemic that at times made that feel like an impossibility.
"I remember standing there, looking towards the Osborne Bridge, and I just see people," Hudson recalls. "One by one, coming from all angles."
He turned his head: from all directions came footsteps. He blinked, it felt like, and there sat 3,000 people or more.
"I believe I remember crying at the time," Hudson now says one year later.
Tears also dripped from the corners of his eyes two weeks before, when an estimated 15,000 people assembled at the same spot for a rally against police brutality and systemic racism. The rally was organized by a grassroots organization called Justice4BlackLives, which put together the entire event — likely the largest mass demonstration for a social cause in the city’s modern history — in a matter of days following the brutal murder of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a moment captured on a teen girl’s camera that led to a global reckoning.
To Hudson, that day was a remarkable one. Seeing the power of a collection of people, united for a cause, was moving, drawing tears to his eyes while also opening them up wide. The struggles the organizers and speakers described rang painfully true to him, with both the death of his daughter and of his son’s uncle Jason Collins, who in April 2020 was also killed during an interaction with the police, dominating his mind.
"We are stronger together than we are separate," he realized.
A few speakers mentioned Eishia by name. Some in attendance carried placards with it written out. Soon, a chorus began, calling for justice for Eishia — a rallying cry that’s been Hudson’s mantra. That moment and that support from the event’s organizers told him that his daughter’s name, and her life, would be remembered, giving him the confidence to work with family and community to organize a rally in her honour only two weeks later.
Holding it at the legislature was practical — easily accessible and easy to find — but also strategic: Hudson wanted people in the halls of power to hear the calls for an inquiry into his daughter’s death, loud and clear.
"It is like a fortress," says Shawn Kettner, an organizer with the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition and Communities Not Cuts, two other grassroots movements that have often centred their demonstrations on the legislative grounds throughout the pandemic. During the pandemic, the building has been especially fortress-like, with the public barred from ascending the granite steps to enter. The people inside the building can hear, she believes. It’s whether they listen that’s often in question.
The day of the memorial was a blur for Hudson: there were dozens of dancers, several speakers, hundreds of interactions. In what has been a recurring theme since last April, Hudson barely got a chance to stop moving, says his wife, Cheyenne Ducharme.
He’s been in contact with families across the country who’ve dealt with similar tragedies, going in person to Ottawa in June to stand with them outside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office on Parliament Hill, standing once more on the steps of a legislative building and hoping the people inside were watching and listening.
“None of us plan to be activists." ‐ William Hudson, father of Eishia Hudson
Hudson never thought he’d be there. He never expected to stand in the crowd at a political rally, let alone be the one holding the microphone. But here he is.
"None of us plan to be activists," he says. Something has to happen — a pain, a realization, a moment of clarity. A spark to light the fire. "We’re all touched in our own ways. Before this, I just tried to live my life as a working man and as a family man.
"I didn’t plan to be doing what I’m doing. I didn’t ever plan for any of this."
Since the pandemic began, sparks have been so plentiful, it almost feels as though the universe is rubbing together sticks and striking flint stones.
Those sparks are so varied, it can be overwhelming. So much is happening all the time, between the pandemic, the climate crisis, and political strife at home and abroad. Sometimes, that’s led people to tune out, but just as often, it’s had the opposite effect: a hyper-awareness and a willingness to participate in a crowd rather than avoiding one altogether. Those sparks often draw attention to fires that have been burning for decades.
"The pandemic illustrates the extent to which people’s individual experiences are intertwined with their group memberships," write University of Saskatchewan professor of psychology Peter Grant and Sonoma State University professor of psychology Heather J. Smith in a paper titled Activism in the Time of COVID-19.
Grant and Smith speculate that more than just reinforcing existing group memberships, the pandemic has created new categories that have brought people together under a single label, such as "essential worker." They also state that collective grief is a particularly strong motivator for collective action. During the pandemic, "so many have suffered through the illness and loss of loved ones, a circumstance in which personal grief mingles with and amplifies collective grief."
In recent weeks, grief has been a determining factor in the Canadian psyche. In May, the bodies of 215 children were found buried in unmarked graves at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced. Subsequently, hundreds more graves were found on the grounds of former residential schools across the country, deepening the trauma of survivors and Indigenous communities Canada-wide. This sparked conversation, reflection, anger and calls to action, culminating in a national reckoning with a violent past that has long been both actively and passively denied.
"One thing I tend to think about is that what happened in the wake of the influenza pandemic in 1918, 1919, 1920, was a lot of social protest and alternative ways of imagining Canada," says Adele Perry, a distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba and the director of its Centre for Human Rights Research, alluding to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and other forms of social upheaval.
"I think pandemics lay bare social inequities in all sorts of ways, and we’ve seen how that can prompt people to make political statements," she adds. "We’re seeing a very tangible form of protest that’s leading people to show up."
More often than not, as they have done historically, the people have shown up outside the legislature, even though it was built for politics and decision-making to take place within its walls rather than beyond them.
Throughout the building’s history, movements such as Pride, student political action, labour activism, antiwar demonstrations and grassroots forms of resistance by Indigenous leaders have scanned all the land in Manitoba and have circled the legislature on the map as their preferred locus. Demonstrations have reached the lawns, the steps, and on many occasions, the inner sanctums of the building, with sit-ins, hunger strikes and all means of non-violent protest taking place there.
During the pandemic, there have been demonstrations against violence and racism, in support of political freedoms overseas in Israel and the Palestinian territories or of farmers in India, in solidarity with doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, and against provincial decision-making which some protesters believe deepened the already-immense impact of the pandemic on the province’s working class and poorest residents.
There has also been a renaissance of public use of the lawns for recreational purposes: people reading, children bicycling around the building on summer evenings, impromptu soccer games among strangers and games of catch between friends, picnics under the shade of the trees.
On the flip side, the legislative lawns have also drawn a series of dangerous rallies opposing public health measures, calling for an end to what anti-mask, anti-vaccine demonstrators have deemed restrictions on their human rights while spreading damaging misinformation and outright denial about the pandemic as it’s continued to rage.
"Despite widespread ‘shelter-in-place’ orders, collective protests in the United States ranged from mostly (unmasked) white participants gathering outside state legislatures to demand an end to these orders, to more ethnically diverse participants marching in city streets to demand an end to racial violence and police brutality," Grant and Smith wrote; the same phenomenon happened north of the border, and no matter the cause, the central geographical focus tended to be situated right outside governmental buildings.
"I think that the pandemic has galvanized many people," says Mike Bagamery, 26, who over the past two years has grown increasingly committed to activism, particularly related to the climate crisis. "As important as individual action is, collective action is needed to accomplish goals. To make things better, we are trying to remind our leaders that they’re accountable to us, or that they should be, anyway.
"We’re trying to get them to redouble their commitments that hitherto they have not followed through on," he adds, with similar pressure on all levels of government. Ironically, Bagamery points out, last November, the province introduced the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act, which he says is aimed at criminalizing those participating in protests that block infrastructure and surrounding areas broadly deemed "critical."
If the bill were to pass, Bagamery says demonstrations like those peaceful ones at the legislative grounds could look different, with a chilling effect on democratic and non-violent collective action.
True to form, opposition to the bill drew more than 200 people to the legislative grounds in March. Bigger crowds would arrive in the coming weeks.
Baby-sized grey sneakers, pink rainboots, small moccasins dusted with tobacco, white runners, purple snowboots, basketball shoes and soccer cleats — hundreds of pairs of shoes were placed on the legislature steps early in June.
The shoes were there to represent the children who weren’t, the ones who were taken to residential schools from their homes and their families, never to return, placed symbolically at the feet of a government building that to many stands for colonialism and loss.
"It really feels good to have the community come and support, and also to acknowledge the 215 children," Gerry (Gramma) Shingoose, an elder and residential school survivor, told the Free Press last June.
As the shoes arrived, so did teepees and a sacred fire, a healing flame that stayed lit for several days.
“I’ve been emotional since they were found, having nightmares again." ‐Susan Caribou, a survivor of Guy Hill School
Over the coming weeks, hundreds of people came by to pay their respects, to mourn and share in healing traditions, burning sage and tobacco as tributes in prayer. "I’ve been emotional since they were found, having nightmares again," said Susan Caribou, a survivor of Guy Hill School in The Pas, at the time. "I’m very grateful because our community, our people always come together when there’s tragedy."
The initial discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops was made with a near certainty that it would not be the last: stories abounded in communities across the country of lost relatives who didn’t come home. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that at least 338 children died at residential schools in Manitoba, though many believe the number to be higher.
On June 21, amid mounting pressure, the provincial government announced it would commit $2.5 million to identify and commemorate children buried in unmarked graves at Manitoba residential school sites.
Four days later, a "healing village" sprouted up on the northeast grounds of the legislature, with a sacred fire lit and tents set up across the lawn. And on July 1, thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Winnipeg in orange shirts, using what in the past would have been a Canada Day celebration as an opportunity to reckon with the country’s colonial past. William Hudson’s pickup truck carried in its bed the grandfather drum, beating loudly.
After the Every Child Matters march, a crowd ended up at the legislative building, with some segments arriving at two statues of British monarchs, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Both statues soon toppled to the ground, with red handprints splattering the base of the Victoria statue. Yet another spark.
Two weeks after the crowds left the legislature on July 1, the sacred fire is still burning at the healing village, and Alma Kakikepinace is praying for more firewood to arrive to keep it breathing.
"Oh, miigwetch," she says quietly as a stranger drops of 10 red mesh bags of exactly what she’s been waiting for. "See, you pray and blessings will come."
Kakikepinace, an elder from Sagkeeng First Nation and a survivor of the residential school system, is one of the organizers of the healing village, which has grown to include several tents and is usually abuzz with the rhythms of her elkhide drum.
It’s not a protest, nor is it a rally, she says, but a type of medicine to those who need it right now. "We’re not going anywhere until they finish searching," she says, alluding to the grounds of residential schools across Canada.
"We’re here for the long run," says 20-year-old Aaliyah Leach, midway through her 20th day at the healing village. The village’s population is a mixture of elders and youth, a combination Kakikepinace believes is invaluable.
"I want to tell you: the young can get there faster, but the old know the way," she says.
As Kakikepinace keeps a watchful eye over the sacred fire, William Hudson walks over, carrying an eagle’s wing. "Hi, kookum," Hudson says, before giving the elder a warm hug.
Hudson now comes to the legislative grounds two or three times a week to visit the village. "What’s happening here is very touching to me personally," he says. "All my aunties, my mom, they were survivors. I myself am a survivor of the ‘60s Scoop. All this touches home. That’s why I bring my kids here. I want to teach them as much as I can."
Hudson’s son recently took his first steps mere feet away from the flickering embers of the sacred fire.
Since the healing village’s first day, Kakikepinace says she’s been heartened by the support of the community, represented by both strangers and people she knows, by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.
On cue, Befekadu Abitew walks up the sacred fire, kneeling down beside it to say a prayer and drop tobacco in. For nearly a minute, Abitew hovers next to the fire in silence.
"Hello, mom," he says to Kakikepinace. Abitew moved to Canada from Ethiopia a decade ago, and was told terrible untruths about Indigenous people upon arriving, racist ideas he soon saw couldn’t have been further from the truth: he found a kinship in the community and was welcomed, he says, which made the recent uncoverings of gravesites particularly painful.
"We know how to heal each other and ourselves. If they listen to us." ‐ Alma Kakikepinace, Sagkeeng First Nation elder
He’s visited the healing village twice now, and says he’ll return soon.
With tears in his eyes, he crouches next to Kakikepinace in the shadow of the legislature, participating in what is only the most recent moment of reckoning there — one more spark in a year full of them.
"That is how we heal," Kakikepinace says. "We know how to heal each other and ourselves. If they listen to us," she says, gesturing to the building behind her, "just think what we can accomplish. Just imagine the momentum we could achieve."
Are they listening? "They aren’t in session now," she says. "But we will be here when they’re back. We are not going anywhere."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.