Meet Me at the Bell Tower

Michael Redhead Champagne shares a model of engagement and sharing that understands the need for empowerment through belonging, inclusion and mutual respect.

By Laura Farr
Published June 21, 2017

At the beginning of May, the Hamilton Community Prayer Breakfast was held at Liuna Station. The keynote speaker was Michael Redhead Champagne, the founder of Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO!) in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Champagne talked about how he came to found the group, and an initiative in Winnipeg called "Meet Me at the Bell Tower". It started as a rally in 2011 to protest the amount of gang violence and deaths for youths, many of them Aboriginal, at a time when Winnipeg was labelled "Murder Capital of Canada".

The Group's rallies continue every Friday at 6:00 PM at the Bell tower at Selkirk and Powers. They invite other faith and community groups to learn about each other and come together in community - in the spirit of, as Champagne says, "strangers are neighbours you haven't met yet."

Champagne thinks of Meet Me at the Bell Tower as "an intergenerational neighbourhood classroom with relatives from across the city coming to the North End to learn." He says that the group's goal is "to ensure suggestions for solutions can come to fruition."

He also invites youth to share their gifts with each other and the community.

Champagne spoke of parallels between what gangs provide to youth - a sense of belonging, pride, and family - are what many programs traditionally forget. Thankfully, this thinking is changing across many groups, communities, and governments.

We know that the top-down approach doesn't work. If we engage those whom we seek to help in organic ways and turn those suggestions into actions, we would be so much further ahead.

Here is the uncomfortable problem, particularly in the Gibson and Landsdale community, where I live. This is going to be unpleasant to hear, because unpacking privilege is hard to hear: We have done an awful job at engaging other voices. Our table has those of different incomes, educations, and even sexualities.

The Planning Team is predominately Caucasian in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the city. Why?

Part of the issue is that I - a white woman with a University education and full-time job - am the one writing this article bringing attention to the issue.

Everyone has focus on their lives and living them, and aren't necessarily going to want to take that time volunteering in their community. We need to do more to engage everyone, and if you're reading this - this is your space to share too. Tell us what your barriers to participating are.

Another part of the issue is that since the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada came out, we have reached a place where we can say: There was an injustice and I've benefited from it, but how do we start?

We're all fumbling through it as a country, and there aren't a lot of precedents to look back on, or examples that we can point to say, "that is how you begin to make amends." There is a lot of anger and division, seemingly everywhere these days.

Maybe we take Champagne's invitation to Hamilton to Meet them at the Bell Tower in our own community, and start inviting everyone to share their gifts. After all, that is the whole idea behind the Neighbourhood Action strategy, isn't it?

Laura Farr was born and raised in Hamilton, and loves living downtown. She currently works at City Hall, is volunteering with a few campaigns, and is an engaged citizen who ethically and professionally walks the line between employee and citizen every day.


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