High-profile community activist Michael Champagne no longer with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities

By | May 29, 2020

The man who co-founded Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and rose to become an internationally recognized community activist and public speaker has left the organization.

Michael Redhead Champagne is one of three community organizers who are no longer with the youth movement from Winnipeg’s North End, which started in 2010.

The youth organization, which has no board of directors, said in a Facebook post all three senior members and founders stepped down as of Sunday after “concerns or allegations” were raised within the community. 

The post did not specify the nature of the concerns or allegations.

The members who stepped down include Jenna Wirch and Ninoondawah Richard, in addition to Champagne.

Jenna Wirch, who was the youth engagement co-ordinator for Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, is seen in this file photo from 2018 taken during an interview with CBC. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Champagne, a high-profile Indigenous activist who grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and spent time in the child welfare system, has spoken to youth and educators all over Canada and the United States over the past decade.

He’s worked side-by-side with Wirch over the years. Their activism has focused on changing the child welfare system, addressing gang violence, and uplifting Indigenous youth. Both have been featured in the media for their work.

AYO said Champagne himself suggested he part ways with the organization he co-founded.

“We believe Michael did that to hold himself accountable for not addressing unhealthy patterns within AYO earlier and not questioning some surface-level minor issues,” the group said.

AYO apologized on Thursday to the community in a Facebook post when announcing the three members had stepped down.

“We want to let community know that we acknowledge that AYO has enabled and caused harms within community for too long. There is no excuse for any of that, we are sorry,” the post said, adding the three members were no longer welcome in the organization’s spaces.

The post thanked those who came forward with concerns. “We thank you for bringing these to our attention and for all the bravery that came with that. We are sorry we did not address these sooner.”

Champagne, who was named a CBC Manitoba Future 40 leader in 2016, started Meet Me at the Bell Tower in 2011 in the North End. The weekly event brings community members together to stand against gangs, poverty and youth suicide.

In 2015, the then-28-year-old was recognized internationally by Time magazine as a next-generation world leader.

“I’m in shock right now,” said Diane Redsky, the executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.

Redsky said AYO has been instrumental in guiding other organizations on issues relating to Indigenous youth and said it has empowered young people who haven’t had a place to go before.

“AYO has done an incredible amount of work over a number of years with organizing, mobilizing and uniting Indigenous youth voice primarily in the inner city, North End for Winnipeg,” she said.

“It was — it is — an organization that has inspired and has created many many leaders who have gone on to do great things.”

Healing, accountability circle created

Champagne declined to comment when reached by CBC News on Thursday.

AYO said Friday its commitment has always been to the community and Indigenous youth in the North End who are looking to share their voice as a means of healing.

“What we have witnessed as a collective in the past two weeks is an example of that commitment in practice,” said a statement from the group Friday.

“Young people have come to us and have requested healing as a priority,” said Ronald Gamblin, a community organizer with AYO.

“What we’ve come to learn in these recent days is that part of that healing must prioritize privacy and safety for the youth involved.”

The organization said it has formed an accountability and healing circle with youth from the community and is in the process of figuring out next steps.

“AYO is a smaller group now than it was before, and we understand this process will take place over a long period of time. As we push forward in a good and healthy way, we will no longer be speaking about these matters publicly.”

CBC News has been unable to reach Richard for comment. Wirch declined an interview request.

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