8. 24. 2021

Changing Everything on the Prairies

Emily R. Gerbrandt

It’s a humid 31℃ evening and my thighs are stuck to a foldout lawn chair in Omar Kinnarath and Jenn Marten’s backyard. Eight organizing members of
Mutual Aid Society of Winnipeg (MAS), Omar and Jenn among them, are meeting in person for the first time since the group formed just over a year ago. Whether it’s distributing food hampers, locating legal support, or providing security for Justice 4 Black Lives marches, MAS has become a community safety net of over 10,000 people meeting each other’s daily needs, big and small.

“The climate emergency has underlined that cooling is a human right. We really need support for people who don’t have air conditioning,” Kat, a MAS organizer, tells me. “And where is that money going? It’s going straight to the police.” As if on cue, the Winnipeg Police’s AIR1 helicopter makes its second round over our heads. In 2020, the police helicopter cost over $2 million in municipal funding. So-called Winnipeg allocates more of its city budget to police than any other major city in Canada, yet it doesn’t have a single supervised consumption site.

I’m a member of Winnipeg Police Cause Harm (WPCH), an abolitionist group working to defund and abolish the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) and fund life-sustaining community services instead. WPCH fights to shift social norms towards an idea of public safety that doesn’t rely on the state’s violence. And I’ve witnessed repeatedly how that kind of anti-carceral organizing is entangled with what I call the “need-meeting” work of groups like MAS.


Meeting needs to build power

There’s sometimes a tendency to see community care work and mutual aid as somehow separate from – or even secondary to – more explicitly anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonial organizing. But seemingly mundane ways of caring for each other can build a foundation for resistance to carceral and other oppressive systems. This is a central teaching of the Black, Indigenous, trans, queer, migrant, sex-working, and disabled organizers who have built abolitionist theory and practice, and who continue to give abolition a great deal of its meaning and power.

“So much of sex work is taking care of each other,” says Maxine*, a sex worker and a member of Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC). “You’re sharing strategies, sharing clients, sharing resources, whether that’s notifying each other that the cops are gonna be coming through today or finding ways to protect whoever happens to be the most vulnerable. We’ll cover each other’s shifts, rideshare in cabs, or look after each other’s kids, anything that reduces exposure to harm. The sex work community has built so much regulation to protect each other. People are really willing to make sacrifices for each other to keep each other safe.”

Cam Scott, an organizer with Police-Free Schools Winnipeg (PFSW) and WPCH, tells me about how a recent struggle to meet a core need of local working-class communities led to an important abolitionist victory. “The only police defunding that has happened thus far in Winnipeg is the removal of the School Resource Officer Program from Winnipeg School Division,” Cam says. “We started an anonymous testimony campaign using the stories students and teachers shared with us about the threatening presence of police at schools. We talked to people about what they needed.” 

In response to those community conversations, PFSW created a social media campaign that compared the cost to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation stations for schools with the salary of one police officer. “We can imagine schools that bring in elders and plant medicine gardens with the money currently spent on police.” The campaign was so effective that, to counter it, the police began copying PFSW’s approach, publishing anonymous testimonies of their own. “It’s really hard to pry money from police departments, but it is easier to go after their public relations partnerships,” Cam says. “The police do terrible PR. It’s where they’re very vulnerable. And it’s where they have the least say over their own budgets.” 

Although removing police from schools doesn’t transform the culture of surveillance and discipline sometimes embedded in education itself, and divesting from police surveillance needs to be paired with funding for community-led safety alternatives, PFSW’s win comes with tangible and immediate benefits. Cam says there’s “an immediate relief [for] all the students that [no longer] have to see those police officers every day.”

In moments like that one, creating alternatives to the police becomes more than just a narrative project. And those alternatives can scale beyond a single campaign. Omar from MAS marvels at how that organization has grown over the last year. “People come to us before they go to government agencies who are supposed to be providing the support we do,” he says. “We have gained trust in the community because the [Mutual Aid Society] network is vast… It’s not just goods and services, it is knowledge, it is resources. So many people reciprocate the support they receive tenfold. Delivering groceries, doing lawn care for disabled neighbours, or even providing legal services. People are sharing their skills and talents with one another and it bonds them, it builds a trusting community.” MAS exemplifies a community of people who protect each other when the state bares its teeth.


Resisting the punishment agenda on the Prairies

In Winnipeg as in many other cities, the pandemic has exposed and expanded the state’s punitive policy agenda. As Winnipeg cut the downtown’s only free transit line last fall, supposedly underused during so-called lockdowns, the city’s police expanded their auxiliary cadet program and hired new constables to enforce public health bylaws. Proposed bylaw amendments for massage parlours and escort agencies in Winnipeg are set to increase fines and other punishments for sex workers who don’t register with the city – changes that will broaden bylaw officers’ latitude to surveil.

“In order to license under these bylaws, I have to give my photo and identification to the police,” says Maxine of SWWAC. “When you look at [the bylaw amendments], there doesn’t seem to be anything of real value to sex workers themselves, but there’s a lot of value to the groups that would like to police us and keep us in one place. Being registered as a sex worker doesn’t allow us any privacy and can close so many doors [compared to] working in another occupation. The cops should not have the power to decide who is and is not ‘safe at work.’ The workers decide for themselves and keep each other safe.”

Sex workers, Indigenous land defenders, Black mutual aid and racial justice organizers, and abolitionists have long been labelled as threats to racial capitalism, and hyperpoliced. The state’s punitive policies are, in part, attempts to criminalize these communities’ survival strategies and incapacitate resistance. In the face of this attack, making our communities more self-sufficient is a key form of collective self-defence.

Sometimes that self-defence is literal. On July 1st, as thousands marched down Portage Avenue for the Every Child Matters Walk to mourn the thousands of Indigenous children killed by the genocidal residential “school” system, WPS officers proceeded to detain an Indigenous man in the crowd. Claire Johnston of Red River Echoes (RRE), a Métis collective on the Métis homeland, recounts how it went down: “By the power of people being like, ‘We’re literally not leaving until you let this man go,’ he was de-arrested. People brought him shoes, people were making sure he was fed and had water. And [then] we all walked together as a group.” The community’s solidarity, built through networks of communal care, was activated as a shield against police aggression.


The alternatives are already here, and have long been here

As abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore asks, how do we work together to “change everything”? Red River Echoes collective members Claire Johnston and Kianna Durston suggest that Métis legal traditions could help guide the way forward. “You can’t decolonize the police, the very existence of the police goes against Métis law,” Claire says. “We are organizing as a Métis collective based on the principles of Métis laws and governance. So we don’t resolve problems by intimidating people, killing them, or locking them up in jail. That’s not the way that we’ve historically done things. Even in recent history, a lot of our communities haven’t had police. The idea that we need to have police is a false idea.” Kianna tells me about how, alongside its work to meet community needs, the collective is correcting historical records that propose Métis people and the police at some point achieved a positive relationship. “By doing the work we are doing to reclaim the narrative, we’re reinstating what our relationship has historically been with the police and the state, and revealing how policing has worked to either eradicate us, control us, or stagnate us.”

RRE’s campaigns include fighting for the removal of colonial place names recognizing British Army officer Garnet Joseph Wolseley and the Wolseley expedition, a militia that enacted a reign of terror against Métis families to suppress the Red River Resistance. The collective is also running a bail fund for those arrested (and others still at risk of arrest) after land defenders removed colonial symbols at the Manitoba Legislature in July. All of this work poses a challenge to settler-colonial common sense, including the central role of prisons and police – and creates an opening for alternative visions to challenge it. 

“We used to all work like a mutual aid society,” says Ryan Beardy, a member of MAS and founder of Winnipeg’s Indigenous Men’s Wellness Group. “Everybody within our communities had purpose…had a role and helped each other. So one person would get water, and that would be water for the community. So that concept of, what Indigenous people say, ‘all my relations,’ we’re all related. To bring that to mutual aid, when there’s so many different cultures, and we all help each other, it’s beautiful to see.” 

In such systems of organizing life that predate – and will outlive – capitalism and colonialism, systems that take communal care as their foundation, we find models of how we might fundamentally transform our social relations today. At its best, abolition is a verb that describes the steps we take collectively in that spirit: attending to the needs of our communities, and refusing to treat one another as disposable. 

*Some interviewees’ names have been changed.

Author’s note: I am immensely grateful to the organizers in so-called Winnipeg who are spearheading the creation of a more caring city. I would like to thank Red River Echoes, Police-Free Schools Winnipeg, Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition, Mutual Aid Society, Strike Poster, Budget 4 All, Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg, and Justice for Eishia Hudson, whose work and knowledge have been directly and indirectly foundational to the creation of this piece.


Emily R. Gerbrandt (she/they) is a cis queer Mennonite settler from the Treaty 1 lands of the Anishinabewaki, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, and Métis, who currently resides in so-called Winnipeg. They organize with Winnipeg Police Cause Harm and can be found at @acabforbooty on Twitter.