To call Mitch Bourbonniere busy would be an understatement. Often occupying several jobs at once, his scope of work is best described as a swiss army knife of helping. On any given day, he may fill the roles of: social worker, counsellor, safety patroller, university professor, cultural worker, driver, action therapist, youth support worker, social justice advocate, and the list goes on.
Given his extensive community work, it comes as no surprise that Bourbonniere receives much praise for his dedication to helping others. Most recently, he was chosen by the Lieutenant Governor as a recipient of the Order of Manitoba – the highest honour in the province. One fact that Bourbonniere makes clear, however, is that he feels this award is the culmination of efforts put forth by a team, many of whom approach him to donate their time baking, driving, volunteering, and generally helping others in the community.
“There’s a bunch of folks that are working in our inner-city just like me – I’m just one of many,” states Bourbonniere. “In my little world I have a whole bunch of people that make me look good because they’re working to help me help others… so to me it feels like a community award.”
Bourbonniere currently acts as program director for Ogijiita Pimatisiwin Kinamatawin (OPK) – a grassroots program that works with Indigenous men involved in gangs and the criminal justice system to provide supports and opportunities to live a good life. This is in addition to his role working with Mama Bear Clan—a safety patrol team housed at North Point Douglas Women’s Centre—and his own consulting practice, Action Therapy.
When COVID-19 hit Winnipeg, Bourbonniere was not immune to the employment challenges that followed and found himself searching for new employment. This provided new opportunities to work with organizations such as Mount Carmel Clinic, who have employed Bourbonniere as a cultural advisor; as well as the North End Community Renewal Corporation, who are working with OPK on a number of projects.
“On March 20, I had zero income and zero employment… everything was shut down for me,” recalls Bourbonniere. “Mount Carmel and NECRC came to my rescue, but they needed help as well.”
Bourbonniere describes the interesting partnerships that he has been able to form due to rapid changes caused by the pandemic. One notable example is a recent grant received from Local Investment Towards Employment (LITE) that allowed NECRC to hire participants from OPK to deliver meals to vulnerable community members. The meals were purchased from ImaginAbility’s food service, a local social enterprise that employs people living with an intellectual disability.
“We’re supporting that company, that social enterprise, but we’re also training OPK guys to have a job, while we’re feeding families in the North End,” explains Bourbonniere. “My mind blew, it was like perfect… there was like three winners in one move right there.”
OPK and Mama Bear Clan were also able to support the Black Lives Matter movement locally. At the request of the organizers, they have attended events held in Winnipeg to provide a feeling of safety to attendees.
“There’s so much woven in… folks working together. I remember at the original big Black Lives Matter [event]… everybody that does safety work all showed up and worked together,” recounts Bourbonniere. “It was really beautiful. There’s a lot of synergy and a lot of partnership going on during the pandemic.”
As much as the non-profit community has shifted to find ways to continue providing services throughout the pandemic, Bourbonniere sees the toll it is taking on residents of the inner-city through his safety work with Mama Bear Clan. He and a team of volunteers patrol the North End/Downtown area to share info about the pandemic with folks who may be disconnected from news outlets, and to distribute food, supplies and perform wellness checks. Bourbonniere worries about the potential mental health and post-traumatic stress fallout that is likely to take place due to COVID-19, which he believes will be significant regardless of a positive outcome with the pandemic.
“A lot of pre-existing social problems were intensified because of the pandemic. And a lot of it went underground, so there’s going to be a lot of mental health coming out—I believe—in the fall,” says Bourbonniere. “I do worry for our vulnerable people, because they haven’t had the drop-ins to go to, they haven’t had the programming that they’re used to, you know what I mean? Prior to the pandemic they could rely on their own little street communities, but they could also rely on us helpers. But they kind of lost [that].”
To address this reduction in services across the city due to social distancing guidelines, Bourbonniere has made efforts to think outside the box in order to continue to provide needed programming to the community. One such effort is a partnership between OPK and Healing Together, who have relocated their Sunday night men’s circle to the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks in order to provide men a safe space to meet throughout the pandemic.
Bourbonniere’s message of partnership and togetherness is one that he believes will be increasingly important as we move into the fall and into flu season.
“We all need to be just venting a little and talking… keeping each other informed and preparing each other for what may come as well. I just want to tell everybody let’s keep communicating, man. Let’s keep supporting each other.”