When I first met Greg, my coworker and I were just sitting down to our morning coffee. He walked into our community kitchen holding a stick at his side. As a new person, we did not know what he might do with this object. So I offered to talk with him while my coworker stood by, ready to call for support if something went awry.
I slowly made my way towards Greg, stopping periodically to greet various guests on my way. The deliberate choices in this approach were all a part of the de-escalation I learned from watching others do the work before me.
Now, as I approached Greg, I was the one who new staff would watch and learn from.
I still didn’t feel like I fully knew what I was doing!
That, however, is part of the way in which the work is done. One cannot respond to conflict nimbly if one has a preconceived idea as to how things will unfold.
So, I made my way toward Greg, not knowing how things would unfold. As I paused to greet others, they would whisper to me, “do you see what that guy has in his hand?” I would reassure them that I did and that I was making my way over to speak to him. I reassured them, saying “I’m sure everything will be okay.”
I was trying to speak the truth into being. I was also trying to create a narrative of hope.
As I approached, I needed to release any desire of control over the situation. By presenting without power I have nothing but hope and love for the other as my tool for de-escalation. Beyond this, the community, whose trust I had gained, had my back and this always gave me great comfort.
When I finally got to Greg, I welcomed him and introduced myself. We exchanged pleasantries. I made sure to smile and held a posture of calm as best as I could. Eventually I said, “can you tell me about what that is you are holding?” At this point, he beamed. He held up his stick with a stone lashed to it. It was clear the way he held it that it was a sacred item for him. Greg was Indigenous, and this, he told me, was a tomahawk that he had made. He wanted to give it as a gift to the place. I received his gift and thanked him. Like many times in my work with our community I was once again pleasantly surprised and overjoyed to have my preconceptions ruptured!
We were sitting having our morning coffee when we saw Greg in the newspaper. Several years had passed since we first met Greg.
Greg, the quiet, gentle man, who we got to know and came to love.
Greg, who had just moved to Ottawa to live with his brother.
Ottawa is built on unceded Algonquin Anishinabe territory. The peoples of the Algonquin Anishinabe Nation have lived on this territory for millennia. Their culture and presence have nurtured and continue to nurture this land. The City of Ottawa honours the peoples and land of the Algonquin Anishinabe Nation. The City of Ottawa honours all First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and their valuable past and present contributions to this land. (City of Ottawa Reconciliation Action Plan)
Ottawa, with its progressive views on Indigenous-settler relations, would be a welcoming and safe place for Greg. In February 2018, the City of Ottawa approved its Reconciliation Action Plan. A plan which:
…addresses the Truth and Reconciliation call to action and confirms the City’s commitment to reconciliation. [A plan which] is a direct result of a relationship built on trust and collaboration between the City, the Indigenous communities in Ottawa and many community partners. (City of Ottawa Reconciliation Action Plan)
Greg would certainly find a home on the land of his ancestors, along with his brother Nick who would watch over him.
On January 31, 2019, Nick told his brother to put on a coat and reminded him that the pharmacy at Elmvale Acres mall didn’t open until 8 a.m.
Greg Ritchie was in good spirits after getting his Ontario Disability Support Program payment and buying a coffee nearby, Chantel Ritchie said. He was excited about the day and his brother asked him what his plans were. He’s like, “I’m going to go back out. I want to get my medication because I’m feeling like my head really hurts and it’s not feeling right. I feel like I need my medication,” she recalled. (CBC News)
At 7:53 a.m., Ottawa police were called to the mall for a report about a “suspicious incident.” The caller said a man was walking into the mall holding a knife in his hand.
People just take one look and that’s it. He’s First Nations, he’s been homeless before, and he is afraid. People just take all of that in one look and then make assumptions and then act on it. (CBC News)
Constables Thanh Tran and Daniel Vincelette responded.
In September 2011, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit charged Tran and another officer with assault causing bodily harm following the arrest of an intoxicated 50-year-old homeless man. (CBC News)
But that was before the City of Ottawa signed their Reconciliation Action Plan.
Not long after Greg left, Nick and his wife heard a commotion outside, and Nick got up to look. He looked out his window, but he couldn’t quite see that area of the parking lot where the altercation took place. And then, not too long after, he hears a very loud yell, with a loud, blood-curdling scream like someone fearing for their life. And then the gunshots. (CBC News)
The SIU report found that Ritchie was carrying a 40-centimetre long stick with a rock attached to one end, and swung it at one of the officers before he was killed. One of the officers shot Ritchie twice with a Taser. While he was struck by three bullets, the two officers fired at least nine shots, according to the report. (CBC News)
Ontario’s police watchdog says no charges were warranted.
I recognize the object pictured above. The one that Greg held as police approached him. It was identical to the one which he gave me.
Outreach workers know that successful de-escalation involves immersing oneself into the community and into the different ways conflict is handled.
When we engage in conflict de-escalation, it is an involved process with the community, not for. This can only happen after one has been welcomed into the community. That takes time.
I can’t help but wonder if the officers tried to talk to Greg.
I wonder if they asked him about the sacred item he was carrying.
I wonder if they approached him assuming that everything would be okay.
I wonder how you can do that when armed with a gun and taser.
But then, I didn’t know what I was doing when I approached Greg…
While these officers had been trained... and knew exactly what to do.
Author’s note: Unfortunately there are no pictures that capture all the various members of the team that I had the privilege to work with over my 12 years, however here is a sampling of some of the wonderful people who help make downtown Kitchener a kinder place! With thanks; to those here and those missing. Greg’s story is but one of the many heartrending stories they carry as they walk alongside those who our society has failed to house.
Tom Friesen was privileged to work as an outreach worker in downtown Kitchener for 12 years. Community members, including his coordinator Jennifer Mains and the amazing team he worked with, taught him how to love better. He wrote this short story about Greg Ritchie, an Indigenous man, who was killed by Ottawa Police in 2019.