“It’s hard to search in winter. Winnipeg can be an extremely cold place. The river slows and freezes, its edges covered with deep snow. It becomes a ski trail, a skating rink, a playground. For families with missing loved ones, a big part of the work becomes waiting.”
These words, along with a grey-blue shot of the cold, snowy banks of the Red River, form one recent post in What Brings Us Here—a project billed as the first NFB documentary to use Instagram as its primary platform.
Created by Governor General’s Award–winning Métis poet Katherena Vermette (who lives a short skip from the river) and NFB producer Alicia Smith, What Brings Us Here brings image and text together to represent some of the individuals driving Indigenous activism in Winnipeg—particularly the Bear Clan Patrol and Drag the Red, organizations which pick up where state-sponsored protection has failed.
James volunteers 100+ hours a week for Bear Clan Patrol. “In August of 2014 when they found Tina Fontaine’s body in that, that most disrespectful manner it was the last straw, for myself, my wife, my family, my community. We wanted to do something to stop this kind of violence. . We wanted to do something concrete, something today, something now, you know? And Bear Clan Patrol was it. We used our connections in the community to get ahold of some original Bear Clan members, from the nineties, to see if we could start it again. Our first walk was last summer and we haven’t stopped.” . @jamesfavel Bear Clan Patrol Inc Co-Founder Photo: @karen.asher
A sense of place—one related, but not restricted, to Winnipeg as a site of racist violence and oppression—is central to What Brings Us Here, a project that sheds light on the city as a prominent site of Indigenous activism and social-justice work.
In the first post of the project, the moderators outlined their framing question for participant-subjects thusly: “What brings you here to do this work?” The answers provided shape an image of the city’s strong community activism.
“In August of 2014 when they found Tina Fontaine’s body in that, that most disrespectful manner it was the last straw, for myself, my wife, my family, my community,” Bear Clan Patrol co-founder James Favel says in one of the project’s early posts. “We wanted to do something to stop this kind of violence…. We wanted to do something concrete, something today, something now, you know? And Bear Clan Patrol was it. We used our connections in the community to get ahold of some original Bear Clan members, from the nineties, to see if we could start it again. Our first walk was last summer and we haven’t stopped.”
More than just a community safety organization—although this may be their most consistent role, with patrols through the North End of the city several nights per week—the Bear Clan has led numerous search operations to find missing individuals.
Volunteer searchers, represented on What Brings Us Here, also share their personal and ongoing experiences of loss.
“We lost a family member last year in the river and we didn’t get a lot of help from the police,” says Drag the Red volunteer Melvin Pangman in another post. “It was a real sense of hopelessness for us as a family. I didn’t know anything of Drag the Red at the time – someone told me that there’s this group of people who look for people when they go missing in the river…. I got [co-founder] Bernadette Smith’s number and I called her, told her our story, and within half an hour, [co-founder] Kyle Kematch showed up in his boat. I told him that my nephew had gone in off the Provencher Bridge. I said ‘If you can, I’d like you to start looking for him’ and he said ‘Ok I’ll start looking for him right away.’ The only one that seemed to really care and help us was Kyle. I knew right away when I met him, that he was very sincere about my dilemma. I was in a hopeless state.”
Anyone who has spent time in Winnipeg knows the structuring force the rivers have on the landscape; these pathways are echoed on the ground by the lines of the train tracks. Both rivers and railways are sources of transportation: of people, of sustenance and of capital, yet they also act as dividing lines and sites of potential danger.
“We lost a family member last year in the river and we didn’t get a lot of help from the police. It was a real sense of hopelessness for us as a family. I didn’t know anything of Drag the Red at the time – someone told me that there’s this group of people who look for people when they go missing in the river. . I got Bernadette Smith’s number and I called her, told her our story, and within half an hour, Kyle Kematch showed up in his boat. I told him that my nephew had gone in off the Provencher Bridge. I said ‘If you can, I’d like you to start looking for him’ and he said ‘Ok I’ll start looking for him right away.’ The only one that seemed to really care and help us was Kyle. I knew right away when I met him, that he was very sincere about my dilemma. I was in a hopeless state.” . Melvin Pangman Drag the Red volunteer Photo by @karen.asher
A photo posted by What Brings Us Here (@whatbringsushere) on
What Brings Us Here developed in tandem with the production of a more traditional documentary short film, this river, which premiered this summer. this river was co-directed by Vermette and filmmaker Erika MacPherson, and produced by Smith and the NFB. It focuses on Drag the Red, which was first formed to search Winnipeg’s rivers for missing persons.
A legacy of the history of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Winnipeg and beyond, Drag the Red was born of a growing feeling that state-sponsored organizations, such as the Winnipeg Police Service, were continually failing to take seriously the concerns of many community members in times of crisis.
What Brings Us Here takes up this struggle for visibility in new form.
“We realized early on that one 20-minute doc could not accommodate all the voices we wanted to hear from,” says NFB producer Alicia Smith in a project blog post. “The film [this river] needed a companion piece, and a web-based project like What Brings Us Here lets us explore the city’s streets and waterways in greater detail, to tell other stories, and to delve deeper into a whole range of related issues.”
The images (portraits, for the most part) in What Brings Us Here were shot by Winnipeg-based photographers Karen Asher, Janine Kropla and Mark Reimer. In them, volunteers for Drag the Red pull up clothing, shopping carts, slurpee cups, among other objects, evincing the river’s many roles, while searching for evidence of the whereabouts of missing persons. Images of the Bear Clan Patrol at work show them recovering used needles that might harm local children, and other items.
“Eyes are always on the ground, scouring for anything potentially dangerous or harmful,” one Bear Clan Patrol post reads. “The smallest details of the neighbourhood are noted.”
It is fitting, then, that a public profile of two organizations so focused on the act of looking would be communicated through photography. Seeing, and its corollary blindness, are frequently invoked in the written statements paired with the images in What Brings Us Here.
“It often completely blows my mind, what so many of us have lived through and what we’re going through constantly,” says traditional knowledge keeper Ko’ona Cochrane in one post. “Canadians need to lift that veil and see. We need to talk to each other instead of making assumptions and walking around with prejudices.”
“It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time: what keeps me going, what motivates me to do this voluntary work. For us Indigenous people it’s almost we’re locked in as: ‘Indian Act, Stewards of the Crown’. We’re set up to believe that we are these labels. We shouldn’t have that limitation imposed upon us, let alone perpetuated, by legislation. . I’ve been working with residential school survivors and their issues for most of my life. My dad is a residential school survivor and my mom attended one for six months. They rose through all the abuses and all the barriers and continued to walk forward. My dad was never one to focus on the pain, so he was kind of voiceless in that experience. I do the work I do to live out his legacy, anything less would not honour what he has given me. I want to ensure that Residential School survivors are heard. . It often completely blows my mind, what so many of us have lived through and what we’re going through constantly. Canadians need to lift that veil and see. We need to talk to each other instead of making assumptions and walking around with prejudices.” . Ko’ona Cochrane Traditional Knowledge Keeper Photo: @christophreeze
The photographs in What Brings Us Here are often accompanied by words from the individuals pictured, acting like stills from a documentary film. Hashtags and comments follow, weaving the images into the sorted content of Instagram. Although cross-posted to Facebook, the project sits much more comfortably on Instagram, allowing the viewer to experience the image-stories both in the context of their personal feed and through the full account page.
As the history of the documentary practice tells us, formal and technological innovation in documentary form often responds to periods of crisis or change. Think of Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook The World (1928) reenacting the events of the Russian Revolution, the inclusion of George Holliday’s video of the beating of Rodney King in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, or more recently, the five-year, 60-artist documentary project Living Los Sures facilitated by UnionDocs in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood.
Expanded and interactive documentary practice seems a particularly apt medium for community history and storytelling, allowing content to bridge the gap between filmmaker/producer and audience. What Brings Us Here’s move from film to social media is, of course, not entirely novel; however, the project’s use of the photo-essay format underlines the ongoing evolution of the form outside of traditional media outlets such as newspapers and magazines.
In recent years, the NFB has been experimenting extensively with multi-media documentary projects, such as Stan Douglas’s Circa 1948, an immersive app exploring historic and animated material documenting parts of Vancouver’s urban history, and David Dufresne’s documentary game Fort McMoney, which looks at life and industry in Fort McMurray. Both projects allow the viewer to try on a different kind of vision, be it time travel, as in the case of Douglas, or increased individual political power, as in the case of Dufresne’s leadership-based game.
In contrast to Douglas and Dufresne’s takes, What Brings Us Here asks us to listen, to read and to look: it’s a slow intervention in a rapid-scrolling era.
Yet, as with other social-media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, publicness sometimes comes at a cost: How do these corporations relate to the activist content on their platforms? As reported by the ACLU in October, we know that some of these websites collaborate with governments to report on activist activities. While the content of What Brings Us Here does not necessarily relate to any real-time events, and may not be considered economically disruptive in the same way as Water Protectors at Standing Rock, it remains worthy of comment that social-media platforms are, of course, never neutral.
“Well, I believe that my work with missing and murdered women began when I was just born because my mother was murdered and I was with her as a small baby when that happened. Even though I was a baby, I still felt all the trauma of being with my mom when she left me. I had no idea about the story as I was growing up because I was adopted into a non-Indigenous family, far away from my community, far away from my story, my history, my language. . It wasn’t until my teens, when I went back to my community to look for my ancestors, that I heard the story of how my mother was murdered and how I was with her. It really reverberated inside of my body as a little baby, it created a lot of trauma that I just didn’t understand growing up. I’m still trying to make those pieces fit together again. I still miss her. I miss her so deeply that it hurts. But I have no memory of her. She was killed in a very traumatic way and there’s that sense of loss, extreme loss.” . Alison Cox Red Robe Drummer Photo: @janinekropla
A photo posted by What Brings Us Here (@whatbringsushere) on
The small, square appearance of the What Brings Us Here photographs within the larger frame of the Instagram platform also emphasizes the differences between institutional and individual visions, exposing the tensions inherent in public storytelling.
For instance, while mainstream media sources frequently refer to “missing and murdered Indigenous women” without specificity, What Brings Us Here asks us to consider individual voices.
“I believe that my work with missing and murdered women began when I was just born because my mother was murdered and I was with her as a small baby when that happened,” Drag the Red volunteer and Red Robe Drummer Alison Cox says in one post. “Even though I was a baby, I still felt all the trauma of being with my mom when she left me. I had no idea about the story as I was growing up because I was adopted into a non-Indigenous family, far away from my community, far away from my story, my history, my language.”
Throughout the texts in What Brings Us Here, this word story keeps returning: her story, his story, their story, our story. Underlining the cultural power of storytelling as well as the significance of hearing these stories now, image and text work together to create complex portraits of the individuals driving Indigenous activism in Winnipeg.
“I lost my cousin Shawn last year. He took his own life in the Red River. My personal thought on that is I don’t think the authorities did much to help and I felt that wasn’t right. I thought ‘If that’s how they’re treating my family, I wonder how many other families were going through the exact same thing?’ . Words aren’t enough. There needs to be action. So I decided to run. When I started, I didn’t realize how many people are affected by this. It overwhelmed me. But it also gave me the motivation and the push to keep going.” . Kayleen MacKay Raised $15,000 running from Duck Bay to Winnipeg Photo: @karen.asher
Both an oral history and documentary photography project, What Brings Us Here ties together memorializing and future-oriented priorities: a history of these groups has yet to be articulated. The project—which went on a break in December but is due to return—lacks the temporal finitude that comes with an edited film, and there is no sense here that this story has finished its telling.
Something happens when time is spent and committed to in an extended way; waiting and looking are two activities that lengthen our experience of the present. Bear Clan patrol co-founder James Favel (who reportedly volunteers more than 100 hours a week) describes the work of the organization, which meets several times a week, as follows:
“Taking back the responsibility of caring for our own needs! It’s empowering…. We have a lot of marginalized people that walk with us, and they’re gaining out of it. Everybody’s learning new skills, new ways of thinking, new ways of behaving. We have people that are recovering, walking with us…So much comes out of it. Our community has come alive again.”
The type of presence that Favel and his group embody in the North End can be theorized in terms of time as well.
“The temporality of resistance is the present,” Jarrett Martineau recently wrote in the New Inquiry. “To resist is to affirm presence.”
Resistance through representation has a complex history, and as Martineau outlines in his essay (in reference to Glen Coulthard’s work on the history and future of reconciliation politics in Canada), representation does not always or even usually translate into political agency.
However, here, the site of resistance does not lie in the image, but in the daily actions of those pictured.
As Chickadee Richards (a co-founder of the 1990s Bear Clan) affirms in one post, “Our hope is our young ones, it’s our children, it’s our babies. But I’m hoping things will change in my lifetime, not in their lifetime. I don’t know. Maybe my work is undoing 500 years of colonization and the harm it’s done to us, my daughter: 300 years, my granddaughter: 100 years.”
“Our hope is our young ones, it’s our children, it’s our babies. But I’m hoping things will change in my lifetime, not in their lifetime. I don’t know. Maybe my work is undoing 500 years of colonization and the harm it’s done to us, my daughter: 300 years, my granddaughter: 100 years. . Sometimes I’m not sure we’ll fully recover. Sometimes all we can do is pray, that’s all we have. We make those prayers so we don’t feel that hopelessness, that helplessness. . People need to go to that spiritual place in order to have some sort of peace of mind. A lot of people don’t understand. Ceremonies do help us, lift us – they carry us to where we need to go.” . Chickadee Richard 1990s Bear Clan Co-Founder Photo: @karen.asher
A photo posted by What Brings Us Here (@whatbringsushere) on
Emily Doucet is a Toronto-based, Winnipeg-born, writer and PhD candidate in the history of photography at the University of Toronto. Her recent work explores the tensions between visibility, temporality and political agency in contemporary and historical photo-based work.