Next time you’re at the Calgary Courts Centre paying for a parking ticket make sure you stop by the Mohkinstsis tent — a safe space where you can discuss healing the relationship with First Nation communities. The man you’ll see sitting in that tent awaiting your questions is Garret Smith.
Smith has gone through many trials and errors in his life. He became disconnected from his Indigenous culture, witnessed abuse,racism and spent a year in jail due to armed robbery. He is now rediscovering himself and his culture and is camping outside the Calgary courts in hopes that the conversation around First Nation communities changes. He believes that the best way to do that is by occupying an area in the downtown core that’s focused on educating the public about his culture. Fuelled by the verdicts of both Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie court cases, Smith is reminding everyone that Indigenous lives do matter.
“The real goal here is just basic community building and awareness and out of that then we can start to build things,” says Smith. “As an Aboriginal man with my personal experiences, this is what I bring to the table as change.”
After hearing about Smith’s camp, Mohkinstsis, I decided that I wanted to learn more about him and his story and what lead him to start the campout in Calgary.
It was a warm bright day on March 13. I quickly walked past the Calgary court house searching for the tent that Smith and his friends had set up. After passing the courthouse park, I saw the small white structure sitting on the front lawn surrounded by snow. It looked sturdy and strong. After observing it for a few minutes I decided that I didn’t want to show up empty handed, so I quickly ran across the street and bought a container of Tim’s coffee. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I crossed the street, coffee in one hand and my camera in the other. Most of the images of the tent I’ve seen just showed the exterior, so I didn’t know what could be awaiting me inside.
“Hello?” I called out as I peeked inside the structure. To my left there was a wood stove producing heat, and sitting by it were signs that read “Native Lives Matter.” Straight ahead was Smith sitting at a table below a sign that said “Camp Mohkinstsis Treaty 7.”
Smith, 33, came over and shook my hand and greeted me with a cheery and welcoming hello. He was of medium stature and dressed in a black cargo coat with a button that read “I heart culture days.”
We sat at the table and quickly dived into conversation about how his day so far was going. Smith is the type of guy that’s easy to talk to and laugh with. His extroverted personality made it comfortable for downtown commuters to come over and say a quick hello and ask a question or two.
With light aboriginal music playing in the background Smith explained how Darla Contois — the organizer for a similar camp in Winnipeg — inspired him to look at a direct initiative for community building with non-natives.
“This was very much inspired by Darla Contois in Winnipeg and the Tina Fontaine case was a big catalyst just to do something … My daughter is going to be 13 this year and that’s two years younger than Tina, so there's definitely a level of apprehension and fear and the caution that's been built up, but I also just want to inflict hope.”
Smith’s father, Iinipooka or BuffaloChild, told Metro News that he’s proud of the steps his son has taken. “I told him once, Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream for his people, and I’m sure [Garret] has a dream for our people as well. Only difference is he’s not including just First Nations people, he’s including everybody.”
Smith was born in 1984 and grew up on the Piikani and Kainai reserves with his grandmother, Adeline Smith. He was adopted by his grandmother at six months old; however he still had a relationship with his mother and father who were 17 and 18 when he was born.
His aunt, Paula Smith, is like a sister to him. There is a 13-year age difference between the two which Paula explained made her his babysitter, mother, sister and auntie all in one.
“It was him and I and it was like just having my own little guy around,” she said. “We were definitely spoiled with love, honour, kindness, respect and generosity. Those were the actual values of the Native paradigm, so I feel that my brother and I were given the opportunity that my ancestors gave to their children which was to grow up with those values.”
She explained that despite the social issues that surrounded their family, they managed to find a place of both harmony and sanctuary.
However, that didn’t stop Smith from still seeing violence and racism. “I was witness to a lot of things young, but they weren’t necessarily in my own home so I was actually really blessed in that way and really protected. But I was definitely witness to other family members you know and hearing their stories and seeing what they went through,” he said.
In spite of having a good home life and close relationship with his family, Smith still went through hardships in his life. In his early 20s he explained that he lost touch with his culture, had problems with his anger and turned to marijuana for healing.
“I'm like the Hulk, I've been angry my whole life. I can't even begin to explain it cause I don't really know where it comes from. It's just an understanding of who we are as First Nations people … because I'm so angry and because of just learning about my history as an Aboriginal person and growing up and experiencing the violence that I did and the racism that I did too,” said Smith.
He explains he lost a lot of relationships because of his anger and him not being able to control it. One of Smith’s biggest regrets was laying a hand on his “baby mama's” face in his early 20s.
“I don't know if I'll ever really be able to forgive myself for that, you know, but it is something that I do need to acknowledge and address,” he explained. “I'm really realizing that it's returning back [to this culture] to who we are that's saving my life. I just really want to share that with as many people as I can to prevent other young men from doing what I did to other people.”
His daughter, Rogue, lives with her mother in a small town by Lethbridge, Alta. Smith says he and the mother are on friendly terms and that their relationship has always been about their daughter.
Another big chapter in Smith’s life was the nine months he spent in jail after committing armed robbery in Lethbridge. He explains that at the time he was 21, angry, and working several jobs — however, he said it all stemmed from the racism that he had internalized growing up.
“I still have things that I need to work through. There are still personal traumas that I haven't openly talked about or openly addressed and again part of the reason for that is I feel like my traumas are a lot less than what other people have experienced … Like witnessing my mom getting abused, being abused myself. But again like I look at other people's stories and I can't feel bad for myself you know I just can't and I think that's one of the reasons why I feel compelled to put myself in this public platform,” he explained.
At 24, he enrolled at the University of Lethbridge but found that it wasn’t for him.
“I was taking kinesiology and anthropology at the U of L and I actually just despised the rigidity… When [my cousin] Troy showed me that workshop it just opened up a whole new world to me and reminded me of what I experienced in high school and what that creation process is. I just kind of said, ‘You know what? Screw university,’ and took off to Toronto and jumped into the three-year program for Indigenous theatre.”
After that Smith decided he wanted to change the world by becoming an actor and specifically taking on First Nation roles.
“I've always wanted to do something to highlight the Aboriginal spirit and the Aboriginal presence. And for the longest time I thought it was maybe I wanted to be an actor and to get like this big Hollywood role and like this cool native character.”
Even though he enjoyed living in Toronto and pursuing acting he felt like there was a component in his life that was missing. After living in Toronto for eight years he decided to come back to Calgary and, in doing so, worked on having a true connection to his Blackfoot culture.
“I don't have a full understanding of my own language yet. I still got to learn a lot of the culture and a lot of the protocols within our own ceremonies cause I haven't been around them for so long. So this is a way of me kind of putting myself out there publicly and showing other youth out there you know that it's okay to try and it's okay to be scared and to not know what you're doing ‘cause I don't,” he laughed.
Smith permanently started living at a place in Calgary in October last year. He continued pursuing a career as an actor however now with a focus on children's theatre.
“I have a contract with Quest Theatre and it's a children's theatre called “Making Treaty Seven,” he said. “We miniaturised that into a small children's version and toured 33 schools last year.”
Touring the schools has reminded him the importance of spreading knowledge and educating the community about Aboriginal culture.
“We toured those schools and we have a question and answer period with the kids...With the exception of maybe one or two of those schools we were always asked, ‘Are the Native people still around?’”
After learning the importance of educating the greater public and then becoming inspired by Darla Contois’s movement Smith set up camp on Feb. 25, 2018 outside of the Calgary Courthouse Park. He explains that occupying an area by the courthouse gives a sense of reconciliation, but it has also brought by some friendly faces.
“I never had a Provincial Court judge come down here and speak with me for about an hour — just that fact alone was truly amazing. We built this great relationship and he even offered — [he said] like, ‘If you get too smelly and you can't make it to your own shower at home, if you'd like to come up to my office and you can use my shower,’” laughed Smith. He hasn’t taken him up on his offer just quite yet.
At first the campout had some resistance from a local security guard in the area, but Smith and his friends didn’t have any trouble once the cops were called. Smith says that the police came by and mentioned seeing the rally from earlier that day and that they understood what they’re trying to bring awareness too.
“[We got] in contact with the Ministry of Infrastructure in the province here, and so they actually sent us a little bit of a statement saying that they support our rights to freedom of speech,” said Smith, adding that they respect the need to promote reconciliation. t “They support what I'm doing here and they have issued no formal request to have me removed from the property for the time being and that they will keep an eye on us as we continue forth.”
The camp closed down on March 5, in respect to the tent in Winnipeg closing. However it was back up again on March 11 due to so many people from the public reaching out that they missed it. “It just made me realize that this that this space needs to be here. There needs to be a visual representation and a safe space that has a solid visual representation of Indigenous life here in the downtown core,” says Smith.
Jessie Loyer, a librarian, assistant professor at Mount Royal University and part of Treaty 6, explains the importance of having a strong visibility when setting up a campout like Mohkinstsis.
“Indigenous protest camps are a lot about reclaiming land and reminding everyday people — especially in an urban setting — that the only reason any of us are able to live and work here is because of the land and the history of the land so it’s sort of that first-off visual reminder,” said Loyer.
In terms of Smith, Loyer says that it's been fascinating to see someone step up.
“Many of us were horrified and saddened and angered by the not guilty verdicts for the killers of Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie. He was really eager to take some of that really hard feelings and kind of the despair that a lot of people were feeling with kind of Canada as a nation and the disregard of Indigenous life and he’s been able to really move it into a very practical and meaningful act that this is a place you can come for education of all kinds and that’s really powerful."
Smith’s friend and fellow committee member for Mohkinstsis, Autumn EagleSpeaker recounts what makes Smith a perfect candidate for putting on the campout.
“I really think that Garret’s outgoing personality is one of the really big things that really brings people there and I think a lot of it has to do to with his formal training being an actor and just being able to create dialogue with people… He has a super extroverted personality and everyone just seems to get along with him really well,” she said.
The reason Smith started his camp was to promote conversation amongst all people. It’s one that begins by letting go anger to address ignorance and encourage education.
“I always got turned off by listening to my own people in that when we talk about these injustices the moment a non-native comes into the conversation and tries to ask a question it’s like, ‘Why don't you know?’ And that if you say something that's a little bit racist you automatically get labeled as a racist,” said Smith. “That's where I believe one of our responsibilities comes in as First Nations that if we want to engage in this dialogue and if we want to have this feeling with our communities, then we actually need to take accountability for our own anger and allow these conversations to actually take place,”
He explains that Mohkinstsis is focused on expanding their goals and having more of a direct approach that focuses on education. This includes encouraging people to come in and ask questions about their culture.
Smith explains that the tent has also become a place for people to come when they are feeling lost.
“One of the experiences that I've had just being here in this location is people who come out of the courthouse they experience some injustices or they're going through some things and they come over here and they pray. They open up and I've had a few families who come here and not just natives there’s been non natives as well too. But I had a couple come in here one day and they just sat down and they just said can you pray for our son you know we know he did wrong and he's going to pay for it but you know I just hope that he will be safe. It's like well you know that’s why we are here and so people need this space, people need access.”
The tent has been up for over five weeks now with over 200 people who have donated, and a dozen regular volunteers. They are now looking into their plans for the future.
So far Smith has imagined Mohkinstsis becoming a 100-foot solar powered tipi built in the downtown core. It would contain a variety of resources and community initiatives inside for the native community.
“We're just talking about this pipe dream of having you know this solar powered tipi but you know let's see what we can do to make that an actual reality and actually have like a tangible goal instead of just this little activist with no action. We want to actually implement some real change into this community,” he said.
He currently plans on contacting Richard Feehan, minister of indigenous relations for Alberta, to discuss what their organization can do in terms of sustainability and permanency. He estimates that it would take around three years until they’re breaking ground and building a facility for Mohkinstsis.
I left camp Mohkinstsis that day with Smith and his friends laughing and drinking coffee. There was only one small shelter at that time but since then him and other volunteers have put up two more tipis on the Courthouse Park. They have also had several events including a round dance where they have invited the general public.
“I really hope this becomes a model for other cities to emulate across the country about how we can engage with one another you know cause we really need to be able to remove all those stigmas, all those fears, all those stereotypes, and have an open, honest discussion about the things we don't know.”
- By Natalie Valleau