It was, from the start, not your standard press conference. Not merely because the voice of Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, flanked by hastily assembled activists and indigenous leaders, crackled with emotion as he noted he was on Treaty 1 land, but because of the tone he managed to strike. He was not here to condemn; he was here to gird Winnipeg for change.
“Ignorance, hatred, intolerance, racism exists everywhere. Winnipeg has a responsibility right now to turn this ship around and change the way we all relate: Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, Canadians alike, from coast to coast to coast,” he said. “We are here together to face this head-on as one community.”
Bowman, sworn in just two and a half months ago, gathered First Nations leaders and activists Thursday to respond to a story by Maclean’s Associate Editor Nancy Macdonald that identified the Manitoba capital as a hotspot for racism. The story explained how the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine has forced the city to face the reality that, despite its reputation for friendliness and its large concentration of indigenous peoples, attitudes toward them can be cruel, and even violent.
While none of those gathered refuted the charge, the united front—which included elder Harry Bone, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, treaty commissioner Jamie Wilson, and Julie Harper, mother of Rinelle Harper, among many others—promised meaningful change.
“I’ve been in different places in the world where if there’s not dialogue happening … there’s war happening,” said Nepinak. “We are in a time now where we recognize that there are people who are wilfully blind of it, and they will continue to be that way. But we will challenge them.”
Ovide Mercredi, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, echoed police Chief Devon Clunis in noting that racism is a nationwide concern. “It’s not just an experience of Aboriginal people,” Mercredi said. “Racism is experienced by many Canadians, people of colour — white people experience racism as well.”
He expressed hope that the story would draw attention to positive work. “I want to thank Maclean’s magazine for the story that they did. And to challenge them to follow up with other stories of where individuals and groups have combatted racism in their particular communities and cities and have made a difference in race relations in their communities.”
But he did not deny Winnipeg had a racism problem, instead talking about his own experiences. Nor did Bowman, instead saying, “we need to get real.”
But would the press conference only amount to words of solidarity? Bowman was emotional as he closed. “My wife is of Ukrainian heritage; my family is Metis. I want my boys to be as proud of both those family lines, and I want every young person in the community regardless of where you come from to be proud of Winnipeg and be proud of who you are. And I invite Winnipeggers to join us and be part of breaking down those barriers.
“The action has to follow the talk.”