A massive fire that swept downtown Brandon, Man., coupled with wildfires in Western Manitoba that caused the evacuation of Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, have caused hundreds to be displaced from their homes. But in the diocese of Brandon’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the community has rallied with donations of clothes and other essential items.
The May 19 blaze in downtown Brandon destroyed three buildings and spread to the roof of 58-unit Massey Manor, a low-income housing complex. About 150 people were forced to leave their homes and are now living in a nearby hotel.
In response, Brandon’s Bear Clan Patrol leapt into action. Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral Don Bernhardt is a member of the Bear Clan, a community group that patrols downtown Brandon and often provides support in the form of food or clothing for those living in the city’s core. The primarily Indigenous group is led by a women’s council.
Because of the group’s work in the area, many of the residents of Massey Manor were known by Bear Clan members. Previous experience had taught them that a clothing drive would be a good way to respond, says Bernhardt, as the Red Cross does not distribute clothing donations.
Bernhardt offered space in the cathedral for the donations, he says, and then, “I basically just stood back and watched in amazement.”
They put out a call to the community that they would be accepting donations between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. the Sunday after the fire. “By 1:30, two at the latest, we had our crypt completely full. I had to open up another room in the cathedral in the basement, and that was filling up. We had the landing of the cathedral completely full of boxes and bags,” says Bernhardt. “People were stopping in the middle of the street and bringing stuff in. It was amazing.”
The donations continued to pour in. “The Sunday of Pentecost, we saw the Holy Spirit in action in a really powerful way,” says Bernhardt.
The majority of volunteer work has been organized by the Bear Clan, with assistance from the St. Matthew’s clergy and a host of parishioners and community members, says Bishop of the diocese of Brandon William Cliff. “It’s just the perfect community effort.”
Working with the Indigenous-led Bear Clan is also “a good sign of reconciliation,” he says.
The whole area under the cathedral is now laid out “like a mall,” Cliff says. “There’s menswear, womenswear, children’s, different sizes. There’s bathing suits here, there’s a whole section of soap and toothbrushes and toothpastes, everything.” Bear Clan members shuttle groups of people from the hotels where they are staying to go through and collect what they need.
Both the Massey Manor residents and the evacuees from Sepotaweyak Cree Nation were forced to leave their homes with little notice, and many have only the clothes on their backs, he says.
Wildfires have spread through the province in recent weeks as an unusually dry spring has fostered tinderbox conditions. According to the CBC, nearly 700 people were forced to leave their homes in Sapotaweyak early this week. About 200 of the evacuees are now in Brandon, being housed in hotels.
Because of the enormous response to the May 19 fire, the church has ample donated clothes and other items for the Sapotaweyak evacuees. “We still have boxes and boxes of clothes that haven’t even been touched yet,” says Bernhardt.
Excess donations will be passed along to community help centre Samaritan House Ministries.
Cliff says Massey Manor residents may be allowed to visit their apartments on Friday to collect some items. “We’re being alerted to make sure that people understand we’re here for support,” he adds. “It’s going to be a pretty emotional, shocking thing to go in and see the state of your home after that kind of a fire.”
“In the moment, there’s a lot of shock and fear and anxiety,” says Bernhardt, who spoke to residents the day of the fire. Despite this, he says, “I get a real sense that the folks know that there are people who care, and there are people who are going to help them adjust to this…We’re going to get through this as a community.”
A service of thanksgiving will take place at the cathedral on Sunday, May 27, to celebrate the work of first responders and volunteers so far. “That will sort of put a comma on things,” says Bernhardt, who says that “the immediate emergent need is done, but the work is not done.”
The diocese is also offering to cover the cost for a week at diocese-run Anglican Memorial Camp for any children or families affected by the fire. Donations through the diocese of Brandon can be made online.