This week, Maclean’s published a powerful piece of journalism. Nancy Macdonald wrote about her hometown, Winnipeg, and the terrible conditions under which some of its Aboriginal citizens live. The stories she told were shocking and hard to read.
There was a visceral reaction across the country and internationally. Soon after it began to circulate, a friend at the BBC contacted me. They were sending a team to Winnipeg to report that in a country considered one of the most inclusive in the world, there still exists a minority facing horrible intolerance. For the BBC, this is a stunning revelation. Sadly, for most Canadians we have learned to accept it, to rationalize it, to forget about it.
Which is why Macdonald’s writing felt like a slap across the face. To many, it woke us up. It painfully reminded us of what we have been so adept at avoiding: Canada has a race problem.
By every indicator, be it economics, health, or justice, the numbers are bad. The unemployment rate for Aboriginal Canadians is twice the national average. They are 10 times more likely to be jailed. They are twice as likely to die as an infant, and live 10 years less than the rest of us. By every single measure, an Aboriginal life is grimmer, shorter, less just, and more difficult.
The Winnipeggers who stood with Mayor Brian Bowman in his remarkable press conference responding to the article know these numbers. They acknowledged that something must change. And their conviction was shared by countless Canadians who read Macdonald’s story and said to themselves “We need to fix this.”
But the reaction amongst others was different. For them, the slap was a personal insult. These people reacted like small minds always do, with ad hominem attacks, misdirection and false equivalencies.
As always, there were those like Don Marks, who dismissed Macdonald’s article because he falsely assumed she is Toronto-based. Not only was he wrong. the idea of debating racism while using the defence “but you’re from somewhere else” is so ironic it borders on the satirical.
But the most telling example was an interview Macdonald did with a Winnipeg radio host named Dave Wheeler (who works for Rogers, which also owns Maclean’s). There, she patiently listened as the host claimed Winnipeg couldn’t have a racism problem because some minorities are doing fine there. And, because Aboriginal-on-Aboriginal crime exists, there can’t be a racism problem. Or, how could there be racism if the mayor is Metis — a variation on the “some of my best friends” gambit. At one especially absurd point he even questioned whether Macdonald could “really” love her hometown.
Wheeler’s views are not unique. We’ve all thought the same things. We flinch when confronted with the painful truth about our Aboriginal community. We become defensive. We look for excuses. We try to rationalize it away.
In some ways, Macdonald’s article is about two kinds of Canadians. Mayor Bowman exemplifies the first type. When he looks around, he sees poverty, injustice and pain, but he also sees hope and a potential for great things. He resolves to work harder, to achieve more, and to build a better city. Macdonald’s story is filled with people like him who acknowledge there are problems and work hard to fix them. These are the people who built Canada.
The other kind, by contrast, are people like Wheeler. When they see a problem, they first deny it exists. Then they make an excuse. They explain it’s not their responsibility. They blame someone else. They attack those who would suggest things could be better, and question those people’s loyalty and patriotism. A Third World population in the midst of a wealthy country like Canada doesn’t just happen. It requires people like this. It requires denial, indifference, ignorance, and wilful blindness.
To those people we all need to patiently and slowly say this: Canada does have a race problem. It persists because of people like you. We don’t expect you to help fix it. But as better men like Bowman try, the least you can do is get out of the way.