Tucked away into North Waterloo, away from gawking onlookers, a group raises a tipi and lights a sacred fire. Land defenders with O:se Kenhionhata:tie, or Land Back Camp, have returned to live on the land to continue fostering relationships and capacity building in our community.

The original Land Back Camp began as a show of Indigenous resistance last year, taking up space in Victoria Park and Waterloo Park to highlight the lack of Indigenous spaces in Waterloo Region. From then and now were songs, drum circles, petitions, meetings with the city, and a documentary before calling it for the winter. Demands were met; more was to be discussed. And now they’re back.

Set along the waterfront in the Laurel Creek Conservation Area, this time round the focus was on the youth. 

(Land Back Camp members and allies in the process of raising the tipi. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

“We don’t have demands this year, so our focus is – which it originally was – is land-based education,” said Shawn Johnston, one of the co-founders of Land Back Camp. 

“We realized after spending so much time in urban spaces like Victoria Park and Waterloo Park that our original intent of having workshops and cultural teachings and ceremonies was never going to work in those spaces,” said Amy Smoke, the other co-founder of Land Back Camp.

Over the winter, Land Back Camp wound up in conversation with the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA), when it suggested providing space in the Laurel Creek area. It was a marked improvement. No need for any night watch like they had last year. No construction nearby interrupting their songs and drum circles. The GRCA did everything they can to be accommodating, even providing repurposed wood for a raised garden being planned. Organizers said the GRCA haven’t questioned or denied any of their requests so far.

“I think it’s beautiful,” Johnston said “We’re right on the water. It’s quiet, there’s nature, lots of animals. Most importantly, we’re on the land with the youth.” They were a full-on summer camp run by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people. There were a number of partnerships this summer to provide programming.

Some of things on tap this summer include:

  • Indigenous elders speaking with youth
  • drum circles 
  • full moon ceremonies
  • community feasts 
  • canoeing
  • setting up a sweat lodge
  • nature workshops
(Dewe’igan Bearfoot stands in front of the tipi raising, wearing the two-spirit pride flag. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

Happy campers

This was the third time they were raising the tipi. Several tents were already pitched up nearby. For Dewe’igan Bearfoot, they were “returning to Mother Earth.” Bearfoot is two-spirit youth who  joined Land Back when it started in Victoria Park.

“Coming to Land Back is like coming home,” Bearfoot said. “It’s like visiting family, especially because so many people at Land Back like Amy and Shawn, just everyone else. It feels like my second family.”

Bearfoot said it meant a lot to be in a space that was made and led by two-spirit Indigenous peoples. They explained the importance of two-spirits as historically embodying both female and male Indigenous teachings.

“They were regarded as sacred medicine women and medicine men,” they said. “There’s so much like injustice towards to spirits towards Queer Indigenous folk. And so, it’s important to have that safe space where other Indigenous queer folk and other two-spirits can come and know they’re in a safe place surrounded by like minded people right.”

In comparison to the higher traffic of people at Victoria Park, here they could fall asleep peacefully to sounds of nature and gentle waves of the water. They were, as they said, returning home.

“My own family had their land taken away from them. They had a home up in my ancestral area, Spry Lake, and then they were moved off the land, and told that they couldn’t live there anymore. It was obviously turned into mansions and cottages,” Bearfoot said.

(Amy Smoke and their child standing in the tipi. Phi Doan/ insideWaterloo)

Krystal Muise was another happy camper who got involved last year as part of night watch. This year, they’re looking to be a better ally and get more involved.

“I am becoming a better version of myself as I’m trying to learn more about holding space for Indigenous folks who have had this knowledge for so long, and have been told that their way of understanding the world is incorrect,” they said.

The area itself contained 20 campsites with access to water and outhouses. There were around 15 regulars that were calling Land Back their home for the summer. Both Smoke and Johnston were in the midst of connecting with other Indigenous people interested in becoming part of Land Back Camp.

The two of them always intended Land Back to be a safe space for two-spirit, queer, trans, non-binary folks from the community. They even had plans to bring in two-spirit elders to speak at the camp.

“We’re always part of the circle,” Smoke said. “I think we’ve been forgotten with that whole missionary work and the Bible and all of those things and the homophobia that came with that.” 

Census data shows that Waterloo-Wellington region is home to 16,000 Indigenous peoples with 10,000 of that in Kitchener-Waterloo alone. According to service agencies the numbers are actually between 30,000-40,000.

“Any of the youth, the Indigenous youth, that felt like they weren’t connected due to their time in CAS (Children’s Aid Society), due to being raised by non-Indigenous families, we’re hoping they reach out to us. We are an open space; we are a safe space. We are not policing anybody’s clothing or identity or pronouns or anything like that,” Smoke said.

The tipi took almost two hours to set up. Hanging from atop it was the Mohawk warrior flag. Just one of many Indigenous flags that dotted the campsite. After nailing down and securing the tipi, more people arrived to celebrate. Firekeepers lit the sacred fire along with bits of tobacco. They will be tending to the fire throughout the summer. A drum circle was held.Later that night, the camp held a viewing of their short documentary that was made last year. They also held an online viewing with ticket sales going towards funding the camp. A Gofundme page for the camp was also launched.

(The sacred fire being lit to celebrate the raising of the tipi. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)
(Members singing in a drum circle. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

The need for space

While Laurel Creek was a definite improvement from setting up camp in public parks, it wasn’t without issues. When Land Back Camp was in Victoria Park, they had to contend with settlers gawking at them, and the occasional racist invading their space. They weren’t there to teach settlers about Indigenous cultures and issues, but people still had difficulty understanding what ‘by Indigenous, for Indigenous’ meant.

While the area was more secure, it’s not without its share of onlookers. There are campers in other parts of the area, and organizers sadly lost last year’s banner to an unknown assailant. It was cut into little squares and shoved into the open barbecue pits in the area. 

“That’s a hate crime, literally and figuratively a hate crime,” Smoke said. “It was devastating. It just shows that lack of respect and actual racist hatred towards Indigenous people. These people have felt so entitled, and privileged enough to walk through this space, and they’re very angry that they can’t now.”It was salt in the wound after Smoke had been fined for attending an anti-racism rally during the province’s stay-at-home orders. They weren’t able to get all the pieces back, but a community member lovingly created a new banner out of repurposed material. The GRCA filed an incident report. It has asked people not with the camp to avoid their area and give them space.

(Members nailing down and securing the tipi. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

The original Land Back Camp was a statement about the lack of Indigenous spaces in Waterloo Region. And when there were, it was temporary. While the GRCA provided the space this year, there’s no guarantee for next year.

“The fact that we’re constantly moving to different spaces each time, speaks to the relocation of Indigenous people and the constant disconnection that we have to our land,” Johnston said. “Which is why it’s so important that we have a space; have a permanent space; have a permanent place that we can call home for these youth.”

While nothing is set in stone yet, there were talks of possibly speaking with a realtor and acquiring acres of land just outside the city. A place where Land Back Camp can be a permanent fixture for the Indigenous people in Waterloo Region.

June is National Indigenous History Month, and the recent news around 215 children’s remains found at a former B.C. residential school has placed the spotlight on Canada’s settler colonialism and acts of genocide. A vigil was held on Thursday at the Victoria Park Clock Tower, which many Land Back members attended. Smoke hopes people take the time to educate themselves about Indigenous issues, while offering the space to grieve. There’s more than enough material out there without having to place the burden of your learning on the Indigenous community. They also want people to really think about what it means to celebrate Canada Day.

“It’s really extremely hypocritical to be so sad and shocked by Canada, and then celebrate it [four] weeks later,” Smoke said.


If you’re interested in getting involved with Land Back Camp, you can head to their website or Facebook page, or email them at [email protected].