n Saturday evening The Hoser was kindly invited to a sacred fire held by Jordan and Robin Scum, two Indigenous brothers who have lived in a small encampment in Clarence Square throughout the pandemic.
Clarence Square sits just off of Spadina Ave. between King St. and Front St. in the west end of downtown Toronto. Jordan and his brother Robin live in a large bright blue Coleman tent on the east side of the park, which opens up towards the CN Tower and numerous glass condo buildings that stand over the square.
According to the Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services website, a sacred fire is a traditional Indigenous spiritual ceremony that can be used to connect with one's ancestors. Jordan, a kind and charismatic young man originally from Alberta and British Columbia, led the ceremony. Photos are usually discouraged, but Jordan and Robin wanted the evening documented.
The group was small and intimate. People sat, socially distanced and mostly masked, around the tiny fire space that was made of six square cement blocks circling a small hole where more cement blocks lay underneath. The little pit was two feet wide at most. Four fire extinguishers were close by under a large pack of gatorade, and later under a Hawaiian pizza brought by Steven Foster, an Encampment Support Network (ESN) volunteer.
ESN is an ad-hoc group of individuals throughout the Greater Toronto Area who have provided food and water, tents and basic living supplies to the residents of the encampments since the beginning of the pandemic. Foster’s volunteered with ESN for most of the pandemic and has become friends with Jordan and a few other Toronto residents who have lived in encampments over the last year. He also brought his 62 year old mom, Astrid Foster, who normally works as a musician, just like her son.
After some introductions and chit chat Jordan began the ceremony.
“I light this new sacred fire in support of the fact that we've made a home out of this park. It may only last until two in the morning because it's supposed to rain all week, so I hope that the ancestors watch it and I'm allowed to burn this stockpile of wood before the city decides to show up and evict us,” Jordan said.
“I've been given the sacred tobacco to give blessings and prayer to the four directions into the fire itself.”
“The reason why I have this here is to represent the ancestors, so when they walk around at night and early in the morning they can find their spot.”
“For the hawk so I can always make sure I've got oversight.”
“For the south where the beavers usually go to the creeks and the ponds out towards the lake. And now I’ll let my thoughts puddle with him and float around for a while.”
“To the west to where the ancestors go to lay their heads at night. And where the sun goes to set and let the moon have its time for the night.”
“To all of God's creations and to the creator of all of my relations.”
Jordan held a bag of tobacco in his hand, pinched a bit of it and sprinkled it into the tiny fire pit. Then he passed the tobacco around and each of us took a pinch and did the same, feeling a sense of significance.
Then Jordan took carefully chopped up pieces of kindling and made a little pile with them over the mound of tobacco.
Then he lit it on fire.
For the next three hours, while the rest of the party talked and laughed and rejoiced in this strangely familiar yet unfamiliar experience— familiar in that we’d all been to campfires before, but none with the CN Tower beaming over us—Jordan carefully added more kindling and wood.
Jordan has lived in Toronto for five years. He said he feels safer living outside in a tent with his brother instead of living in the shelter system because of frequent COVID-19 outbreaks, like many of the residents who have lived in encampments through the pandemic. According to Toronto Public Health, there have been over 1000 COVID-19 cases linked to outbreaks in homeless shelters.
The Center for Disease Control’s website recommends allowing “people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” if individual housing options are not available. It also says “[c]learing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
As of Monday, there are 25 active COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters and congregate settings (which include correctional facilities, group homes, etc.) in Toronto.
On March 19 the City of Toronto posted eviction notices in parks across the city that said those living in the encampments would be evicted on April 6. But on April 3, the city said it would not immediately force the encampment residents to leave because of an outbreak at 45 The Esplanade, one of the shelter hotels it had planned to move residents into.
On Saturday night Jordan and a couple of his buddies said they’d tried to have a sacred fire ceremony last week, but it was interrupted when the police arrived and made them put it out.
A friend of Jordan’s showed us a 16 minute video of one of the police officers grabbing Jordan, throwing him to the ground and putting him in handcuffs. According to Jordan, no charges were laid, but he sat on the ground handcuffed for 15 minutes while the police put the fire out.
We’re going to show you a clip of that 16 minute video because The Hoser thinks it’s important for residents of Toronto to see how Jordan, and, according to ESN, many other encampment residents have been treated by the Toronto police throughout the pandemic. We got Jordan’s permission to show this to you.
It’s hard to watch.