As a child, Henry remembers how normal it felt not to have enough food.
Growing up in Winnipeg’s inner city, Henry and his younger brother would steal from convenience stores to satiate their hunger. Their father, a single parent, earned minimum wage, and relying on food banks was simply Henry’s reality.
So was instability.
Some of Henry’s earliest childhood memories were marred by physical violence, alcoholism, and trauma. Eventually, the abuse led to 11-year-old Henry being placed in the care of Child and Family Services. That first year, Henry was placed in 11 different homes.
As he approached his teenage years, Henry began dreaming of a better life. Noticing the only people around him who weren’t living in poverty were drug dealers, Henry started idolizing their lifestyle.
“Seeing the life they had made me realize I didn’t want to be poor anymore,” explains Henry. “Drug dealing seemed to be the only way I could work my way out of poverty.”
By 13 years old, Henry had dropped out of school and was selling cannabis on the streets. He spent much of his time downtown with a group of fellow youth in care, collaborating in robberies as a means of survival. Consequently, Henry also spent much of his time in a youth correctional centre or on probation.
When Henry aged out of the child welfare system, he braced himself for a life on the streets. Homeless, riddled with anxiety, and without any support, 18-year-old Henry began self-medicating with alcohol.
“Being homeless is really dehumanizing. It’s almost like you don’t exist—or you exist in another reality,” Henry shares. “And it’s hard to get out because you feel so hopeless.”
Henry doesn’t know what would’ve happened to him if he hadn’t met the Indigenous Elders at Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin (OPK), a United Way Winnipeg donor-supported agency.** But by chance, their paths crossed with Henry’s, changing his life forever.
Larry, one of the founders of OPK, helped Henry reach a significant milestone: getting his first “real” job renovating homes in Winnipeg’s North End.
“I remember cashing my first paycheque and thinking to myself, ‘wow, I worked so hard for this money,’” says Henry. “It just felt good. I was so proud of myself.”
That job was so much more than a legal source of income. Henry spent that summer working alongside active gang members who candidly shared what the gang lifestyle was really like—and it wasn’t at all what Henry wanted.
“I didn’t want to end up in jail like the men I was working with,” says Henry. “That summer was a real turning point for me.”
Henry (centre) runs his first sweat lodge at an OPK summer retreat. (Photo credit: OPK Facebook / August 9, 2019)
Through his new support system at OPK, Henry also began learning there were names for the causes of his and his family’s pain: systemic oppression. Colonization. Intergenerational trauma.
“It was an epiphany,” says Henry, who now understood the link between colonial systems like residential schools and the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth like himself in the child welfare system. With this new framework, Henry grew curious about his heritage and exploring Indigenous ways of knowing.
With the guidance of Elders at OPK, Henry became immersed in a life of Indigenous ceremony and culture. Bathing himself in traditional practices like sweat lodge ceremonies not only catalyzed his healing journey—it also gave him clarity about his true purpose: to be a helper.
Thanks to the encouragement and support of OPK, Henry began pursuing his Bachelor of Social Work at University of Manitoba. Using a trauma-informed lens, he began working with youth in the child welfare system and introducing them to Indigenous ceremony.
“I can’t thank OPK enough for having such a positive impact on me,” says Henry.
By extension, his whole family feels the ripple effects of the mentorship and support he received from OPK, too. Henry’s daughter now volunteers at OPK and wants to be a social worker when she grows up—just like her dad.
Today, Henry is 21 years into his healing journey. He knows how intergenerational trauma can impact an entire family, an entire community, an entire nation—but so can intergenerational resilience.
“There’s been a genocide on our people and culture . . . but we’re still here because of our resiliency and strength,” explains Henry. “And that gives me hope.”
*End Homelessness Winnipeg report.
**Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin (OPK), which translates from Ojibway into “young warriors living a good life,” offers support to Indigenous men involved with gangs or the criminal justice system.