Keeping the Fire Going: Marcel French Tends the Flames of Camp Mercedes and Community Connection
“I certainly always have believed in community and I believe that you find out who you are,” says Marcel French, a 60s Scoop survivor from the Roseau River Ojibwe First Nation in Southern Manitoba. Initially raised in a Mennonite community, he relocated to the city as an adult. He’s worked hard to connect with his culture and to become part of the First Nations community in Winnipeg, knowing his children would want to know more about their roots and wanting to take those first steps himself.
Moving out of his home community and into the city, French struggled to find where he fit in the bigger picture of his new community but he persevered. Getting involved with First Nations organizations was one way he has engaged in discovering who he is and doors have been opened for him to learn more through that process.
“Overall, I'm just involved with the community and just trying to make a better community for everyone.”
French considers himself a community ambassador and has been involved with many different groups and organizations. He’s been involved with Manito Ahbee Festival, one of the largest local powwows, since day one, and with Festival Du Bois for over thirty years on a volunteer basis. He is on the board of Wa-Say Healing Centre which hosts an annual powwow and an Orange Shirt Day walk. French also works with Camp Mercedes, an initiative he connects to strongly as a funeral home professional who has worked with families who have lost children and are struggling to find closure.
The camp raises awareness for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women known to be in the landfill. It was named after Mercedes Myran, a woman who is believed to be there alongside other women. The camp is occupied around the clock and French’s role is that of a firekeeper and elder in residence to help deal with cultural situations that arise. The fire has been burning for months and French is there to attend to the needs of the camp which is located behind the Human Rights Museum. Their location draws tourists who have heard about the camp but may not be aware of its purpose. French and fellow residents provide information to people who have come to Winnipeg from all over the world. For people looking to help the camp, French recommends donating firewood or time to keep the sacred fire going or to help out with things that need to be done around the camp.
In deciding where he spends his time, French looks to where his heart belongs. One of his cousins who was pregnant was a victim of homicide in the nineties. He decided to participate in the camp because he knows firsthand what families go through when their loved ones are murdered or missing and can be a sounding board for those who want to talk. He may not always have the answers families are looking for, but he does what he can to share his truth and bring comfort.
His advice for Indigenous community members looking to get involved and volunteer is to join organizations and find out what kind of time commitment volunteering involves. He suggests committing to things you are passionate about. “If your heart's not in it, you're not going to do a good job at volunteering,” he observes. Starting with doing a good job in one organization, people may notice and ask you to help out with another organization. Getting involved in community is volunteer networking, with new opportunities to give back being presented over time.
French got his start at a local soup kitchen. He saw them giving back and that they had a need but he had never been involved with one before and didn’t know what they really stood for. Washing bowls, cups and cutlery, he enjoyed meeting people and being involved at a community level. “I fondly remember doing that as my first volunteer experience,” he shares.
Looking to the future, French hopes Reconciliation will be achieved and that people recognize First Nations people and their struggles, understanding they won’t be solved overnight. He would like to keep being a voice for his community as a First Nations person. “Reconciliation, it's such a powerful word and if you understand the true meaning of it, I know we're all a part of it, or can be a part of it,” he reflects. “Fight for a good cause and believe in yourself is the bottom line. You gotta believe in it, that tomorrow will be a better day and that means being involved with your community,” he continues.
Believing in community and while learning more about who he is, Marcel French is giving back where he can. From the soapy sinks of a soup kitchen to the fire at Camp Mercedes, he’s learned his place is where help is needed and where his heart belongs. This 60s Scoop survivor found his way back and found himself along the way. Now he’s finding new ways to be a part of the city he calls home.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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