By Evan Radford

Shelley Mike’s uncle, Alvin Constant, also known as Wandering Spirit. Photo courtesy of Shelley Mike.

Though dead now for 10 years, the artist known as Wandering Spirit to some and as Alvin Constant to others lives on through his paintings, many of which he sold while roughing it on the streets of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary and elsewhere.

A member of the James Smith Cree Nation – a stone’s throw east of Melfort – Constant froze to death, homeless, on Nov. 24, 2006 in Calgary.

Initially, city police had trouble identifying the well-traveled painter, according to the Calgary Herald’s Kerry Williamson.

In a lengthy front-page feature almost three weeks after Constant’s death, Williamson notes that he travelled throughout North America for about 30 years, even fathering a child with a Finnish woman in Victoria whom his family hadn’t met.

He lives on for his niece, Shelley Mike, too, albeit in a different way.

“A few years [after his death] I had a dream that he came to me, and he was telling me that I had to do something in his memory, like for the homeless people,” she said. “So that was my message.”

Mike, who lives in Saskatoon, had mourned her uncle’s passing and tried to honour his memory through work with some local homeless initiatives.

But it’s the dream and Wandering Spirit’s message that motivated Mike to implement her own way of helping Saskatoon’s homeless people; it started with her uncle’s backpack.

Constant had a habit of dropping in to see his niece, no matter where she was living, and staying with her for a month or so; he’d then leave and see his niece again much later, sometimes five years later, according to Mike.

The last time she saw her uncle before his death, Mike managed to get a hold of and look inside his backpack, an item on which he had always relied.

What she found were the bare essentials: gloves, a scarf, a fork, a knife, a can opener and a razor for shaving. And she found rolls of toilet paper.

“A lot of times you don’t even think that, you know, when you need to go, you need to go. And a lot of times you won’t have toilet paper,” she said.

Perhaps indicative of the man’s artistic talents, Mike also found scraps of paper and a pencil – the short, stubby kind stacked in clear plastic cubes at lottery kiosks.

The paper scraps were likely found on the street, she says.

The last item she found stands out: an old, beat-up, plastic Dasani water bottle.

Elementary school students at the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation pledge their support to Shelley Mike’s 2016 backpack drive. Photo courtesy of Shelley Mike.

The backpack and its contents were her inspiration.

“That’s what I’d come up with: to do a backpack drive for mostly men or adults living on the street,” she said.

Now in her third year of the drive, Mike puts the same items in the backpacks as what she found in her uncle’s original.

She does it each year at Christmas, and she aims for 100 backpacks each time; last year she reached 89.

As of Dec. 18, she had 50 packed and ready to give; 30 of those came by way of donation from Stobart Community School in Duck Lake.

She says that people always want to help with the drive and donate what they can, including her colleagues at the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.

“They think it’s a really good idea. And a lot of them chip in and they’ll either drop off stuff or drop off a bag,” she said.

Just as important to her is making an impression on her grandchildren, Dre and Gunner.

She, her grandsons and her daughter, Cassie, handed out backpacks together last year at The Lighthouse, Saskatoon’s supported living and emergency shelter centre.

“He was kind of shocked to see, [and] he was a little bit frightened,” Mike said of the elder, now 15-year-old Dre. He couldn’t believe that people live like that,” she said.

The backpack drives seem to have motivated Cassie to consider adding food to the backpacks.

“She went to the [Midtown Plaza] the other day and she says, ‘we need to get those bags out because there’s so much people asking for food,’” Mike said, noting her daughter encouraged her to include some form of food in the backpacks.

That was during a week of bitter cold in Saskatoon, when average temperatures ranged from -18 to -26 C, according to Environment Canada.

And if last year’s homeless head count in the city is any indication, the homeless population is growing.

As of August 2015, homeless people numbered 450, 45 of which are children. That’s an increase from 2012’s 379 and 2006’s 260, according to the StarPhoenix.

For her part, Mike says she wants to do more for the city’s homeless. She hopes that the more people hear about the backpack drive, the more they’ll be compassionate.

“I always think that for myself, we’re all one paycheque away from being homeless. Have compassion for people, have compassion for the less fortunate, and only good things will come form giving to people who need help.

“You just never know when you might need help too, one day,” she said.

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