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COVID-19 Community Profile – Mitch Bourbonniere & Ogijiita Pimatisiwin Kinamatawin (OPK)

August 06, 2020

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.”

Land Acknowledgement

The Winnipeg Boldness Project resides in and works on the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), Anishinabewaki (Oji-Cree), Dené, Michif Piyii (Métis), Nêhiyawak (Cree), and Očhéthi Sakowin (Dakota). We recognize that we have benefited from and continue to benefit from colonization on the Treaty 1, Treaty 3, and Treaty 5 Territories.

It is important to also acknowledge how we benefit in this territory at the cost to Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg has been drinking clean water for over a century via an aqueduct from Shoal Lake. In 1917, 3000 acres of Treaty 3 was declared property of the city of Winnipeg to build the aqueduct. This aqueduct was built over ancestral burial ground, to build these structures, the ancestors were disinterred and reburied. Construction of the aqueduct changed the waters significantly, causing the peninsula to become a man-made island. This now isolated Nation faced many challenges as a direct result from this aqueduct; Necessities like water, groceries, schools, and mail were only accessible via the dangerous trek to the mainland. Lives of adults and children were lost crossing to and from the mainland. Freedom Road, an all-weather road access finally opened summer 2019, over a century after displacement. This road, a testament to the success of Indigenous-led solutions, helps bring materials to build schools and a water treatment plant.

“I always think of it, even when I turn on the tap I’m like this comes from our community and this water probably contains our ancestors and the spirits of our ancestor. I think about the hardships of the people from Shoal Lake 40 who have gone through so many things for the benefit of Winnipeg’s drinking water,” says Angelina McLeod.1

Another benefit we reap in Winnipeg at a cost to Indigenous Peoples and land is the Hydro Electricity Development in Treaty 5. To optimize water movement for greatest power production the Province of Manitoba increased waterflow by creating the Churchill River Diversion in 1976. The modification of the waterflow caused flooding, shoreline erosion, and changes to water quality. This destruction of habitat has caused disruption to waterway travel, fishing, and hunting.