Indigenous men finding solace in new brotherhood in Winnipeg's inner-city

Chris Harper is leaning forward. He’s running a support group for Indigenous men, but says he heals as much from their time together as they do. 

“This club, it helps me,” he says to a few members huddled around the drum circle.

“I wish there was someone around when I was younger,” he later adds, “to guide me.”

Harper is serving that role for other Indigenous men through a new social group in Winnipeg. It’s grown from two members to nearly 30 people, in only a matter of months.

It’s called the BROS (Brothers Rekindling Our Spirits) group, and their official launch was Thursday night at Thunderbird House. 

“A lot of the men here that do come, they depend on this club. A lot of them are struggling off the streets,” said Harper, who grew up in Winnipeg and whose family is from Peguis First Nation. 

Emotionally charged conversations

The men get food and shelter, but are staying for the sense of belonging. It is supposed be a safe space for men to speak freely. That’s hard for some men who keep their emotions bottled up, Harper said, but they’re learning.

“When we open up in that sharing circle, we’re letting a lot of that masculinity go,” said Harper, who works as the cultural advisor with the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre in Winnipeg.

“A lot of men won’t cry in front of other men, but when it does happen in that circle, it’s a sacred setting and we’re not allowed to poke fingers or laugh at people — that’s not what the club is about.”

Guided by traditional Indigenous teachings, the social club is a collaboration with Movember Canada and the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre.

Attendees enjoyed a meal and shared ideas for possible activities for the BROS group in Winnipeg. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The club, which meets once a week, is planning fishing events and movie nights.

Already, group members have sewn their own hand drums, with some of them brought to Monday’s event. 

Patrick Claeys, of Cree descent, was sitting at the drum circle, wearing one of the necklaces he’s made. He’s turned other necklaces into gifts.

“It helps me heal doing that and giving somebody something makes me feel good about myself,” he said.

The 36-year-old said his life has been turning around. Claeys is finishing up his Grade 12 credits and wants to become a cook. 

He says the BROS group has kept him on the right path.

“We’re trying to lead by example,” Claeys said, “and it will hopefully reach to the other men and women on the streets that there’s something good going on that you can go to.”

The new club is also welcoming non-Indigenous people as well.

Social connections matter

“It’s a very down-to-earth, very honest, very pure way of life and I’ve embraced it,” said David Borm, who likes the intentional nature of the prayers.

The group’s early success is affirmation that social connections matter, says Sonia Prevost-Derbecker, global Indigenous program director for Movember, a charity devoted to men’s health. 

“Lot of these men don’t have what other men have, which is just a social network that acknowledges they’re a part of a greater good, that they can contribute to, they can not just control things in their own lives but they can contribute back to others.

“When you get men together to do groups collectively, there is a bit of a collective impact that happens with all of the men there.”

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