Pair of teepees used by homeless in downtown Winnipeg destroyed by fire

By | January 14, 2020

Two teepees donated to Winnipeg’s homeless community to keep them warm have been destroyed by fire, renewing calls for support for the people who had lived in them.

Matthew’s Place was set up near the Disraeli Bridge in honour of Matthew Allen Sutherland, who had accessed services in the area before he was killed on Oct. 31, 2019. 

His uncle, elder Walter Richard, donated his family’s sundance teepee, and two local men’s groups, Healing Together and Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin (OPK), donated the poles and helped set the structure up on Dec. 23. 

According to a city spokesperson, crews responded to a report of a teepee fire at around 1:30 Tuesday afternoon at the temporary homeless camp on Martha Street and Henry Avenue. 

They found the teepee unoccupied and engulfed in flames. Crews were able to extinguish it quickly, according to the spokesperson, and no one was injured.

Three men’s support groups helped set up a teepee, to be known as Matthew’s Place, donated by the Richard family in memory of Matthew Allan Sutherland. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

“I’m hurt because of the symbolism of the teepee. And what it represents. And so that part is very sad. But again we’re relieved that no one was hurt. We’re hoping that the folks there will get the help they need,” said Mitch Bourbonierre, who runs OPK.

“I’m still proud that the teepee went up because it was a statement.”

While the City of Winnipeg had taken down previous homeless camp structures, they left the teepees up because they were recognized as being sacred.  

Bourbonniere said Mama Bear Clan had been visiting the camp and teepees most nights to make sure people were OK and had food and clothing. Many others stopped by as well.

“It was up over Christmas and New Year’s and the people there were visited, and looked after and hugged and loved up by the rest of us.”

Matthew Sutherland had been accessing the services around Thunderbird House before he was killed. (Submitted by Wally and Melanie Richard)

Matthew’s Place, the larger of the two teepees, had been used as a sleeping shelter. The other, an effort spearheaded by Jenna Wirch earlier in December, had been used as a warming shelter. She said it was also damaged by fire last week, and is gone.

“I’m not going to give up. It is disheartening, it is exhausting, but people need a warm place to sleep. And we can’t just give up just because there was a fire,” she said. 

“People don’t just give up and leave people in the cold.”

Wirch led the initial effort to build the teepee after the city removed two previous structures.

Although she said she’d heard both fires were deliberately set and not the result of negligence, the City of Winnipeg has yet to respond to inquiries about the cause of the fires.

“Tomorrow we’re just going to have to pull up our bootstraps and do it all over again and learn from our mistakes. We’ll start all over again if we have to.”

Jenna Wirch put out a call to community members in December for help to build the first teepee in Winnipeg for those in need to warm themselves. (John Einarson/CBC)

The need for help is more urgent now, Wirch said, especially because of the cold. She said she was told that elder Mary Richard, the first executive director of Thunderbird House who died in 2010, envisioned 10 teepees on Thunderbird House property. 

Bourbonnierre said Mama Bear Clan, Healing Together and OPK would keep visiting to spread love, cheer, food and clothing to their “brothers and sisters” at the site.

But he had heard the city is set to begin cleanup of the entire site, with help from Main Street Project with people and their belongings.

“My big worry is for the 20 or 30 people that were in those camps,” he said.