It came up on my Instagram feed two weeks ago, a hoodie bearing the image of Sgt. Tommy Prince in shades of red, blue and beige similar to the iconic Barack Obama "Hope" poster. Under the image was the word "Ogichidaa" which is Ojibway and means warrior, a veteran; a ceremonial headman.
The post was from a group called Helping Hand Warriors. The post outlined that the cost of the hoodie was $55, with partial proceeds going to Community Helpers Unite to help raise money to build a community kitchen in the North End.
I took a screen shot of the post and sent it to my mom.
‘Did you see this?’ I asked her.
She had. My little sister had discovered the post before I did. She sent it to my mom and was trying to arrange to send her money to buy a whole lot of the hoodies for my family for Christmas.
"I’ll do it," I told my mom.
Prince, of course, is one of Canada's most decorated Indigenous war veterans; he was awarded 11 medals for his daring and courageous service in both the Second World War and Korean War.
Prince, who was born in Petersfield, died homeless in 1977 at the age of 62 in Winnipeg. There were First Nations honours at his funeral, along with representatives from the provincial and federal governments and from France, Italy and the U.S.
I called the number on the post, a man answered.
"Uh, hi, I’m calling about the Tommy Prince Hoodies…"
The man on the other end of the phone was immediately conversational. He spoke with an openness as though we knew each other. We shot the breeze for a few minutes before we made arrangements for me to pick my order.
He told me that his name was Manny Spence and that he created the group as part of his sobriety journey. The Helping Hand Warriors, he said, goes out every Saturday to Air Canada Park right outside of the APTN building on Portage Avenue to deliver lunches to people in need. He started doing this because it was something that he needed someone to do for him not too long ago, yet another lifetime ago.
The next day, day after speaking to Spence, I picked up my hoodies. I tucked all but one of them away in the closet for Christmas. I kept mine and felt a great sense of pride when I put it on.
I followed up with Spence the next week. I wanted to know more about the hoodies, and his Helping Hand Warriors. I wanted to hear his story, whatever he was willing to share. When we spoke he had just returned from doing community outreach on Main Street.
"I started doing things like that because it’s my high," he said.
He'd spent many years of his life struggling with addiction. Pills, needles, cocaine and alcohol all took their hold on his life. He was an everyday user before he quit. He said he felt like a slave to the drugs.
"The needle was my best friend," he said.
When his father died March 10, 2018, Spence had a breakdown. The pair had spent many years of their lives detached, but prior to his father’s death they had started to get to know one another. They’d get together and even started a tradition of going to Sunday-night Bingo. He was heavily addicted to opiates at the time.
At his father’s funeral, Spence was suffering through withdrawal symptoms. Standing alongside his family as they laid their father to rest, he struggled. He explained that he wasn’t there mentally and that’s when he knew that he was done. He wanted to get sober.
"That’s how he remembered me when he passed away. We never got a chance to reconcile the way I wanted to," Spence said. "I hope he’s watching me now."
Helping others has been a way for Spence to heal. It’s core to his journey of sobriety. Last April he and his friend Sebastian created the Helping Hand Warriors. They were sitting around Spence's apartment talking about how they would reclaim their identities and give back to the community.
They started handing out lunch kits the next week, and the effort has continued. Every Saturday Spence and a small group of volunteers pass out about 150 bagged lunches with sandwiches made from bread donated by the Leftovers Foundation and bologna they get at cost from Abbi’s Payfair at 467 Sargent Ave., as well as granola bars and bottled water. They’ve also handed out masks and other PPE to people throughout the pandemic.
Spence said he started the Sgt. Tommy Prince hoodie, mask and T-shirt fundraiser as a way to raise money to help Community Helpers Unite build a community kitchen. Sebastian came up with the design and connected Spence with someone in the city who puts the images on the clothing.
Spence doesn’t take anything from the sale of the shirts.
"(Prince) was just like the people we’re helping. He fell through the cracks and even stayed at the Salvation Army," Spence explained. "It’s nice to have Tommy’s face out there; he should be on the five-dollar bill."
“(Prince) was just like the people we’re helping. He fell through the cracks and even stayed at the Salvation Army." – Manny Spence
Prince's grandson, my relative Buddy Prince, said he loves the attire. He said he ordered a couple of the hoodies for himself and his family. His grandfather is a great sense of pride to our family, our community and to Canada.
"It’s done in great taste and for a great reason," he said. "I honestly believe my grandfather would approve."
You can order your own Ogichidaa hoodie by messaging Spence at Helping Hand Warriors on Facebook or Instagram. T-shirts are available for sale at Atlas Pawn Shop, 836 Main St.
Monday, Nov. 8 is Aboriginal Veterans Day. On that day and every day we remember and honour the contributions of Indigenous veterans in the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Korean War.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley Cook is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press and manages the paper's Reader Bridge project, which seeks to expand coverage of underserved communities.