In Winnipeg, a meaningful stand against racism

Nancy Macdonald on a watershed moment for Winnipeg that united the city, and how it all came together

Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, shakes hands with Winnipeg Mayor, Brian Bowman after a media conference at City Hall in Winnipeg today.  (Chris Procaylo/Winnipeg Sun/QMI Agency)

Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, shakes hands with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman after a media conference at city hall in Winnipeg on Wednesday (Chris Procaylo/Winnipeg Sun/QMI Agency)

This week, Brian Bowman, the recently installed mayor of Winnipeg, said he plans to roll out a new website: 1Winnipeg.ca, a new forum for ideas for tackling racism. He unveiled it on CBC’s morning drive-in show, which taped live from the city’s troubled North End. His new Facebook profile bears the new One Winnipeg logo, and its tag: “Stand up, be strong and talk about racism.”

It was the latest in a series of remarkable moves made by Bowman, indigenous leaders and the city at large in reaction to a recent Maclean’s feature that said Winnipeg is the place where Canada’s ugly racism problem is at its worst.

Two-and-a-half hours after he first read the story last week, Bowman convened a press conference. Beside him stood about 30 of the city’s most prominent indigenous and civic leaders, including the chief of police and two university presidents. “Ignorance, hatred, intolerance, racism exist everywhere,” he declared. “Winnipeg has a responsibility right now to turn this ship around and change the way we all relate.” Others, including former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Ovide Mercredi, who spoke briefly in Cree, and Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, expressed similar concerns with the state of racial tension in the city. “I want people to continue to stand up and be strong . . . Talk about the racism that you experience in the stores in this city and across the country,” said Nepinak. “Let’s have this dialogue now, because we are strong enough as a society to overcome these challenges together.”

Interactive: In their own words, Winnipeg leaders discuss a momentous day

Editorials across the country applauded the reaction. The Ottawa Citizen called it “extraordinary and praiseworthy.” The Winnipeg Free Press said, “Mayor Bowman’s call to action was not merely about rescuing indigenous peoples; it’s about saving Winnipeg itself.” The National Post called it “a heartening reaction coming from the city with Canada’s largest Aboriginal population—one that ought to steel national resolve to do better by them.”

All week, offers of help came pouring into Bowman’s office—from the mayors of Regina and Calgary, from former prime minister Joe Clark and countless Winnipeggers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. This week, his office sent out a save-the-date inviting 100 civic and national figures to a press conference on Jan. 22, 2016, a year to the day Maclean’s released its story on Winnipeg. Bowman says he intends to tell the country about the change and progress in the fight against racism in Winnipeg. “We’re going to continue to build bridges between people. We’re going to increase understanding. We’ve already started down the path of reconciliation.”

There has been some negative reaction to the story, notably, from the Winnipeg Sun’s columnist, Tom Brodbeck, and local radio host Dave Wheeler, who believe the article overstates the degree of racism in their city. But Bowman says the feedback from Winnipeggers has been overwhelmingly positive. “People are proud of their city. It struck a chord. Whenever someone takes aim at Winnipeg, it hurts. But what hurt worse was the truth in those pages,” he said. “I’m in office because I want to make a difference.”

Related: You can build a better Canada, or you can get out of the way

It began at 9:30 a.m. last Thursday, when Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman sat down to read Maclean’s cover story describing Winnipeg as “arguably becoming Canada’s most racist city.” The story (written by this reporter) centred on the unsolved murder of teenager Tina Fontaine and outlined the struggles of Natives living in the city’s North End neighbourhood. “I had to put it down a couple of times,” he says. “I had troubles reading it, emotionally. But, as much as I didn’t like the headline, when you read the story, you can’t argue with the tragedies and statistics it chronicles.”

By 10:30 a.m., his response was clear. He and four staffers spent the next 45 minutes calling, texting and tweeting the city’s indigenous leadership and civic leaders of all political stripes. “They dropped everything and they came out,” says Bowman. He wanted them united behind him when he addressed the magazine piece.

By 11:30 a.m., most had arrived; some had walked out of meetings or cancelled appointments to be there. The mood was sombre, emotional. North End youth activist Michael Champagne led a smudge, a spiritual purification ceremony, explaining its importance to city staff, councillors and business leaders who’d never smudged before.

Wab Kinew, the journalist and associate vice-president of indigenous affairs at the University of Winnipeg, was offered tobacco and called upon to lead an Ojibwe prayer. He called for those assembled to stand behind his friend the mayor at this difficult moment. Then he led the group in a traditional song. “The idea,” Kinew says, “was to set a positive tone—of unity and mutual understanding—so we’d all come out with a compassionate and understanding and humble frame of mind.” The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on anyone in the room. “It was amazing,” Coun. Jenny Gerbasi says.

Then Bowman spoke. Gerbasi didn’t know what he was going to do, as a new mayor. She says the article “was a slam against our city—at least, it felt that way to some people.” So much was at stake. “Had he come in and denounced the article,” says treaty commissioner Jamie Wilson, “half the Aboriginal leaders there would have walked out. It would have created a real argument, and deep divisions in the city.” To many in the indigenous community, a denial would have felt like a slap in the face. “Instead,” says Gerbasi, Bowman “faced the truth.”

“This is an issue we’re going to have to face head-on,” Bowman told the group before they left the mayor’s office to face cameras. “We can’t run from this. We all need to work together, and I’m committed to this.” The response seemed deeply genuine and honest, says Wilson. “It took a huge amount of courage; he was showing our vulnerability as a city. He was stepping forward and saying: ‘We’re vulnerable, we have weaknesses, racism is a problem.’ But if you’re truthful and honest, people will rally behind you. And we did.” Bowman pushed open the doors and the leaders came walking out one by one.

Related: Canada’s race problem is worse than America’s

The mayor, choking back tears, said Winnipeg had to do better, that Canada had to do better. Partway through, he ditched his prepared notes. He became emotional while discussing his own Metis heritage and his hopes that his sons will be proud of that inheritance. A CBC reporter tweeted that she’d never seen so many Aboriginals at city hall before.

To David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba, it was “an opportunity to declare collectively that a lot of us are committed to doing things differently.” To Gerbasi, it was about turning a new page in civic history. There were few dry eyes when the press conference was over; the group parted with hugs and promises to do better. “Being in that room was like the moment John F. Kennedy died. I’ll always remember it,” Wilson says. “It was a watershed moment for the city.”

City leaders were not the only ones tackling the issue. Teachers at three different high schools told Maclean’s they threw out lesson plans for two days last week. Their classes read the article aloud together, using it as a starting point for discussion. “Every dinner table in Winnipeg was probably having a chat about what is racism, who is racist, and are we really,” says John Orlikow, councillor for River Heights-Fort Garry. Chaplain Dave Chell led a worship calling on his parishioners to push “for the good that can flow from this.”

Photograph by John Woods

Photograph by John Woods

At first, Kevin Chief, MLA for the North End riding of Point Douglas, was angered by the article, “which said such terrible things about my city, my lifelong neighbourhood, and my home.” But he agreed to meet with Maclean’s last week and took this reporter for a cold walk past his childhood home. As he read the piece, he said he began to see it as an opportunity. He was on the phone until 3 a.m. that night, speaking with Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Winnipeg Jets, and Ginny Devine, the wife of Canadian diplomat (and former Manitoba premier) Gary Doer.

The article “has triggered a very personal response in this city, and many of us are still trying to measure the scale of its impact,” he wrote in a personal essay for this week’s tablet edition of Maclean’s. “If we can use the sense of vulnerability from [Maclean’s] stories as a starting point to share our own, I hope we can find more common ground and build more understanding.”

On a visit to a North End youth meeting, things had clearly changed from the first time Maclean’s attended in December. Talk was more urgent, focused on the issue of anti-racism. Indigenous youth activist Jenna Wirch said the week’s debates had opened the “floodgates” on a dialogue that is essential and long overdue. “We’re making history right now,” Wirch added, shaking her head. “It’s been an amazing week.”

Pierre Dumont, who works in communications, says he’s had deeper, harder conversations about racism and addictions with his Aboriginal friends this week than ever before, even with people he’s known closely for decades. They’ve told him things they would have otherwise never shared, he adds.

In the last couple of days, Cree poet Duncan Mercredi says he’s received so many smiles and hellos from strangers that “it’s starting to feel a little freaky,” he wrote in a Facebook post this week. “It just happened again on my walk to the corner store—a ‘good morning’ from a stranger. It’s going to take a while getting used to this new world order.”

—With files from Rachel Browne and Genna Buck

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In Winnipeg, a meaningful stand against racism

  1. I dunno where you Winnipeggers found this mayor, but damn he’s good.

  2. I certainly hope this gets contagious through out Canada.

    • Me too. Interesting if the country gets the help it needs from our mayors, not our MPs.

  3. I am all for these initiatives as light weight as they tend to be, but the article referred to that Macdonald wrote is more reflective of the problem than helping. First off, the article she wrote discussed Native on Native crimes, which is a reflection of the authors inherent racism. There are larger systemic problems socially and politically that lead to interactions that are often portrayed as racism when they are really the results of policies that divide Natives from other Canadians. This is impossible to quantify, further discrediting the premise of the article. Putting a nice slogan on a Facebook page is great but we should really talk about the National policies and stakeholders that prevent real action from taking place. There are policies that would alleviate the unreported “real” racism that afflicts Natives in Canada and they are not being talked about.

    • That is one of the reasons Michelle Thrush is a great person to include in this initiative. She is plain spoken and honest about the challenges that FN people have ahead of them. She isn’t afraid to admit the responsibilities that both sides need to take. She works with FN youth, trying to get them to rise up like she did.

      • Thanks, I’ll look forward to seeing her in action. Typically people who talk candidly get branded as racist and never get anywhere, hopefully that changes.

  4. Nancy’s article completely misled readers. The examples of violence against First Nations that she used in the article were First Nations committing crimes agains First Nations. This is not racism. Is there racism in Winnipeg? Yes, but it is also found in all parts of Canada. As an non Caucasian, I have never encountered racism in Winnipeg, which is where I live. I have in other parts of Canada. There is this little thing called Folklorama that happens every year in our city, to which people from all of the WORLD come to and enjoy. So, there is no non-white intolerance here.

    • It is true. I like how she has to self-publish a fluff piece to deflect the criticism of her original story. Winnipeg is a great example of a successful multicultural city. It is one of the least racist cities I have lived in and I have lived in many.

      • At least we can all rest easy knowing that Macleans writers clearly love themselves enough to make up for the rest of us.

  5. 1. Accuse white people of racism.
    2. Receive praise for your “courage”.
    3. Deposit checks at the bank.
    4. Observe that despite your “courageous” accusation of racism, nothing has changed because obviously the problems at issue are not caused by politically incorrect facebook posts I mean what kind of moron would think that.
    5. Repeat steps 1-3.

    • I look forward to the day when you have something constructive to offer, rather than attacking those who say things you don’t like to hear.

      • Kay your comment is about a revalant as a dust bunny

    • That is bang on. Very well said.

      • I was referring to Average Ape. What are you offering that is constructive kay53?

  6. Amazing. There have been about 10 stories on this topic so far….and it only takes seconds for white people to start posting whining defensive comments.

    Wake up folks….there are Third World countries within our borders…..and lame excuses or faux outrage won’t fix it.

    • The 10 stories have all blamed aboriginal problems on white “racism” (referring in actual fact to political incorrectness). Nothing about corrupt chiefs, nothing about the wisdom of having communities live in remote parts of Canada in some weird hybrid culture of traditionalism and modernity, nothing about the staggering amount of taxpayer money spent on aboriginals every year…

      To call these “articles” idiotic is to gravely insult all idiots of this world. This is not about fixing any problems. This is about finding a convenient scapegoat for problems and congratulate oneself for being “progressive”. Puke.

      We could send every last white canadian who’s ever had a politically incorrect thought even enter his head to the gulags, and it wouldnt make a dent in aboriginal problems, in fact it would make them worse. But all you lefty idiots know how to do is scream racist, so that’s all you ever do.

      • Less ranting, more thinking please.

        • lame excuses or faux outrage won’t fix it.

          What will fix it Emily, tell me. Calling people racist?

          • For the nth time….phone your MP. Tell that MP to settle the land disputes. It’s been 3 centuries.

          • You say that as if there were no details to hash out. I was silly to expect a coherent response from someone with your intellect.

          • There are entire sections of provinces with ‘details’ to hash out.

            After 3 centuries there is no excuse for this not to be done.

            And I wouldn’t mention the word ‘intellect’ after your comments on natives being different than whites. We are all the same species.

          • And I wouldn’t mention the word ‘intellect’ after your comments on natives being different than whites. We are all the same species.

            I never said anything of the sort. But nice try. So very typical of people with your intellect, when backed in a corner, yell racist.

          • Actually you did, Ape.

            “We could send every last white canadian who’s ever had a politically incorrect thought even enter his head to the gulags, and it wouldnt make a dent in aboriginal problems, in fact it would make them worse”

            But racists never like being caught.

          • So you lack basic reading comprehension skills. I shouldn’t be surprised.

            I said if we send white racists to gulags, it wont help aboriginal issues. It wouldnt, because aboriginal issues are orthogonal to the presence of white racists in gulags. Corruption and poverty will not be solved by sending white racists in gulags, unless there’s a causal mechanism that Im just not seeing of course.

            More to the point, nothing in there suggests any difference between whites and aboriginals. Not even close.

            But at least you got to call someone a racist, and I know people of your intellect enjoy that.

  7. Natives on their own would still have corruption and poverty….is what you said, Ape

    • No, not at all. It’s quite clear what I wrote but I see you enjoy accusing me of racism much more than discussing substantive issues. Typical for someone of your intellect. Accusing people of racism is easy, discussing substantive issues is hard.

      Also, you’ll be happy to know that white people also suffer from corruption and poverty.

      • LOL you have yet to address the issue. Mostly you’ve just whined and been defensive.

        And since it’s TGIF I doubt you’ll be able to….so ciao.

        • Emilyone – it is actually you that has yet to address the issue — and you are a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. You may want to check your sense of entitlement at the door.

    • There’s no point arguing with emily, she wants to maintain the status quo which is spending billions of taxpayers dollars a year on “programs” and creating 6 figure jobs for sociology majors that sit around doing nothing under the guise of “healing” while the corrupt chiefs steal all the money for themselves.

      All while screaming white people are racist, all white people are evil, etc, because it’s impossible to be racist against white people, they can be the scapegoat/boogieman for the next few millenia.

  8. Nancy Macdonald, you should learn how to properly write an article which includes NOT cherry picking data but stopping to look at the whole picture before allowing your article to include a headline like you allowed. You’re the author of the article…you’re going to bear the backlash of your poor writing or headline choice.

    BTW….Native on Native crime isn’t racist and unfortunately is the reason why so many female natives are DYING. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate populations in our prisons too. Perhaps you need to come back to Winnipeg and live here for a while…perhaps go back to the U of M to LEARN how to write an article properly before you make blanket comments about a city. I guess what everyone says about Toronto is true?

    by the way….have you taken a look at your core staff and the “multiculturalism” that exists on the Macleans payroll before you point the finger?

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