After acknowledging the Treaty 1 Metis land on which he stood, the mayor of Winnipeg took a long, deep breath Thursday and said racism against Aboriginal people is a big problem in his city.
Flanked by 11 social, political and cultural leaders in the prairie city summoned to his office with only an hour’s notice, Mayor Brian Bowman stressed that racism is a problem nationwide, not just in Winnipeg.
But he did not dispute the claim made on the cover of Maclean’s magazine, published Thursday, that claimed “Canada has a bigger race problem than America. And it’s ugliest in Winnipeg.” In fact he went further, saying he hopes Winnipeg can “lead the nation” in eradicating racism.
“Racism and intolerance exists in every community, but we do have a problem in Winnipeg,” Mr. Bowman told the National Post by phone. “Instead of shrinking from the challenge, we need to rise up and we need to do better as a community.”
The article — the reason for his hastily called press conference — said national attention on the death of 15-year-old Aboriginal girl Tina Fontaine last summer has forced the city of 633,000 to face its “festering” racism. Indigenous writer Rosanna Deerchild, who is depicted on the cover, said she is routinely called a “stupid squaw” — a deeply derogatory term for Aboriginal women.
“We’re here together to face this head-on as one community,” Mr. Bowman told the media.
It was a significant step for the leader of Winnipeg and perhaps a critical one for the city’s first mayor of aboriginal descent, though the former privacy lawyer rarely mentioned his heritage during his campaign.
‘I guarantee that right now somebody’s having a racist experience in a restaurant, or on the streets in Winnipeg’
Describing Winnipegger’s reactions to the article, Mr. Bowman told the National Post “the natural instinct is to kill the messenger and attack Maclean’s.”
He noted, however, that he was “impressed” with how few people had done so.
“Most people I’ve spoke with, and certainly the leaders who gathered here at city hall today, recognize that we do have a problem, and we need to do a better job of addressing it,” he said.
Wab Kinew, a Canadian broadcaster, musician and university administrator in Winnipeg, feels the mayor did “the right thing.”
“He focused on the broader truth – Winnipeg does have this issue,” Mr. Kinew told the National Post Thursday. “There’s also an opportunity here to do things the right way and maybe show some leadership on how to do right by indigenous people.”
Mr. Kinew said he quickly rearranged meetings planned for Thursday afternoon when he received a text from the mayor’s office inviting him to take part.
He and University of Manitoba president Dr. David Barnard drove there together and joined with a group of others in a boardroom before the 12:45 pm CT news conference.
“There were maybe two dozen people in a small meeting beforehand. Somebody gave me tobacco and we smudged together, said a short prayer, sang a song, just took a moment of contemplation and quiet,” he said. “Then it was ‘lights, camera, action.’
I don’t think that’s happened before at city hall.”
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Mr. Kinew remembers being the target of racism as a kid at the hockey rink in Winnipeg. Most jarring of all, he said, was being targeted by the parents of fellow players.
The Maclean’s story opened by quoting a Facebook post written in December by a Winnipeg high school teacher, which said Aboriginal people are “Just standing with their hand out” and that he, as a white man, should “not be on the hook for their cultural support.”
Now, as an adult, Mr. Kinew says the racism is mostly subtle.
“I’m a professional, but people assume I’m some entry level or custodial worker. Or people will be talking to me about ‘Oh, the taxes you don’t pay,’ or ‘Everyone in your community’s got issues with alcohol or problems with government dependence.’
It’s like ‘Well there’s only one native person you’re talking to right now and that guy doesn’t depend on the government, he’s not an alcoholic or any of these things you’re trying to paint me with. So what are you really trying to say?’”
Although Mayor Bowman acknowledged that racism is a particularly difficult issue for a city hall to fight, members of the impromptu gathering acknowledged that there is hope for the city.
“I’m not here to pacify racism or to provide a politically correct statement on the reality of racism within the institutions that we function within every day,” said head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.
“I guarantee that right now somebody’s having a racist experience in a restaurant, or on the streets in Winnipeg somewhere. I’m not here to pacify that or to say that it’s OK. But what I am here to do is I’m here to acknowledge the great work of people who get up every morning of every day to challenge racism in this city.”
National Post, with files from Tristin Hopper