Firekeepers Geoffery Daybutch and Darryl McCormick.

By Barb Nahwegahbow

TORONTO – Two men from the Anishinabek Territory are looking after the sacred fire that is part of the Vigil for Indigenous Youth in Crisis. The Vigil in front of the Indigenous Affairs offices at 25 St. Clair Avenue East has been held by three women since July 20. The lack of government response to the suicide epidemic among children and youth in northern First Nations communities prompted the vigil. Since the vigil began, more youth have been lost to suicide.

The sacred fire was lit on August 16 at David Balfour Park which is about a 10-minute walk from the Vigil.

Firekeepers Geoffery Daybutch, Mississauga First Nation and Darryl McCormick, Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve say that caring for this sacred fire is one of the biggest responsibilities they’ve ever taken on. We’re doing it for the kids, said Daybutch, and to support the women who are holding space for those kids. “We will keep this fire burning for those kids until their lives start getting better or until we see some concrete action to get help to them,” Daybutch said.

The camp is equipped with a sleeping tent with cots and sleeping bags, a camp stove and a picnic table. There’s a pile of wood recently delivered by Daybutch’s dad. The warrior flag and the Haudenosaunee flag, secured to the sleeping tent flutter in the breeze. Another flag, the Serpent River First Nation flag is wrapped around a tree. Pow Wow tunes are playing, but softly, and visitors are directed to the bowls of medicines by the fire. The camp is clearly a place of prayer and reflection, but laughter is not prohibited. Coffee, freshly-made by McCormick is offered all around.

The camp is clean and orderly and that’s important, said McCormick, because it’s a reflection of the community. Elder Vern Harper visited a few days previous.   “He was really impressed with what he saw, the maturity set by Geoff and me, the cleanliness, the professionalism, and the respect for the medicines and the fire.”

Every morning, they clean the park of litter left by people at night. “We pick up other people’s garbage, the beer cans and we’ve even found some needles, because we don’t want people thinking it’s us. That’s the last thing we need,” McCormick said.

They’ve experienced racism from passersby. “We see a variety of people,” said Daybutch, “everything from dog-walkers to the people who live in the condos around us to the homeless people who live in the ravine just east of the park. All walks of life pass through and for the most part, they are supportive of the cause once they’re made aware what we’re here for.” He’s been surprised at the racism coming from people living in the affluent neighbourhood. “But we try to just keep a positive attitude towards everything and everyone and not dwell on that,” Daybutch said. “It’s a real positive thing that we have here in this very pristine park.”

McCormick said although they experience racism, they also get a lot of support from people. “People come by with groceries, gift cards, coffee, hot food, wood. It’s just amazing how people can show their support to a cause like this.” The City Parks and Recreation staff have been very supportive, he said. Toronto Police are frequent visitors and while they’re not exactly harassing the firekeepers, they’re asking for an exit strategy with timelines.

About the suicides among Indigenous children and youth, McCormick said, “I can’t imagine being in a place so horrible to even think of doing that.”

Daybutch is optimistic that their efforts are creating awareness and change. The vigil and the sacred fire are keeping the issue at the top of the government agenda. He’s attended two meetings with Minister Carolyn Bennett, but what they’re doing is just not enough. Only two communities have received help and with minimal resources. “It’s just heartbreaking to know how many more communities need so much more.”

“We’re prepared to stay for as long as it takes,” Daybutch continued. The weather is getting colder and it’s chilly in the mornings, he said, “but the small discomfort we’re going through is nothing compared to what those kids in the north are going through.”