Make no mistake about it.
Nancy Macdonald’s article in Maclean’s Magazine is no joke.
Sensational as the headline may be, the embarrassing attack on our City has proven to be a uniting wake up call for all of us.
While I doubt the accuracy of the latest ugly moniker to be bestowed upon our City, I find myself questioning the need to discuss degrees when it comes to racism.
The article left many people asking, “How do you accurately quantify, measure or compare racism in vastly different communities?”
If you do the research, you will learn the Ku Klux Klan has had significant historical prominence in several major Canadian Cities in Provinces like Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
Yet Nancy Macdonald and Maclean’s Magazine somehow single out Winnipeg as our Nation’s ugly duckling.
Suffice it to say racism is a Canadian problem, just like it’s a problem in the United States, Europe, Australia, Asia and every other Country in the world.
Winnipeg Free Press reporter Bartley Kives says, “Yeah, well, tell us something we didn’t know.”
The evidence is incontrovertible as Kives points out.
In a word, over-representation.
Over-representation in poverty, unemployment, jail, street gangs, youth crime, homicide, domestic violence, violent crime, suicide & child welfare.
Racism is a reality for Aboriginal people living in our Country, whether it’s overt, covert, historic, systemic or institutional.
Aboriginal people in Manitoba have lived the Canadian nightmare for decades and no one has done anything to alter that reality.
That has to change.
It occurs to me, apathy might be the absolute worst kind of racism.
The racist attitudes expressed by Winnipeg residents Lorrie Steeves and Brad Badiuk have to be challenged by all of us.
The Maclean’s article might just be a catalyst for that change.
The story forces us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves who we are.
It forces us to ask ourselves what kind of City we want.
When I joined the Winnipeg Police Department in 1987 I admit I came to the job with certain negative perceptions of Aboriginal people.
Those perceptions were destroyed once I was exposed to alcoholism, violence, sexual abuse and depravity in households of people from every ethnic origin.
I learned about the dark side of humanity and how it had no size, shape or colour.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I was exposed to many Indigenous people who were victims of crime. I built relationships with them and joined them in their struggle to find some sense of justice in a system where little could be found.
I met Indigenous people who were intelligent, talented, strong, courageous, considerate, loving, generous and accepting.
Most important, I learned the majority of Indigenous people are just like everyone else.
They want respect, hope, opportunity and understanding.
If we want to tell the truth, we have to admit they get little of these important things in our City.
What happened in Winnipeg after the Maclean’s Mag firestorm was remarkable. A hastily called press conference where leaders from the community came together to join hands in the fight against racism.
Leading the charge was newly elected Mayor Brian Bowman.
Bowman refused to rail against Maclean’s Magazine or play the blame game, his message was one of inclusion.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak had a different message.
“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. I guarantee right now that somebody is having a racist experience in a restaurant or on the street in Winnipeg somewhere,” he said.
He went on to identify several, “Champions who are challenging racism.”
“Presidents of universities, people like Wab Kinew, Michael Champagne, Althea Guiboche, people who get up every day and go into the streets to challenge it.”
It occurred to me he failed to acknowledge the efforts of another important leader who’s been trying to change the culture in Winnipeg.
“A number of months ago I made this statement: “We need to have a really difficult conversation in our city respective of race,” and the question was posed to me, “Well, who should start that conversation?” Well, I think you have seen who is starting the conversation today and I think it’s absolutely apropos that our mayor is taking the lead on that,” said Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis.
Clunis has been a leader on the issue of social justice and equality in our City and deserves credit for being a catalyst for much-needed change.
True leadership requires acknowledging and embracing the efforts of all champions who challenge racism, not just people who come from your own ethnic origin.
It may have been a simple oversight.
The press conference was not about division or isolationism.
It was about bringing people together.
Ovide Mercredi brought that message home with his thoughtful remarks;
“I have experienced racism in my life, and it’s not something that I wish upon anyone at any time in their journey. But the approach that I’ve taken is to try to make sure that the prejudice and the discrimination did not diminish me as a human being. I tried to convert that negativity to a strength for myself by taking action to resolve it, so that the impact of it did not embitter me as a human being.
Racism is not a Winnipeg issue only; it’s a national problem. And it’s not just a problem of Aboriginal people. Racism is experienced by many Canadians: people of colour, and white people experience racism as well. This is a national problem. 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 or cities and have made a difference in terms of improving race relations in this country. There are models within universities, within government institutions. We have taken steps to try to address racism through human rights legislation, commissions of human rights and so on. Employers have been challenged by political leaders of all political stripes to initiate equity initiatives as a way of breaking down the prejudice in the workplace. So there are models across the country.
That’s not to say that there’s no work to be done in Winnipeg—there’s a lot of work to be done in Winnipeg. But as you can see behind me, there are people who have the energy to change the way in which we treat each other. And we’re ready for that. The Aboriginal community is ready to sit down, to make sure that in the city of Winnipeg, across the country, that there’s zero tolerance for racism and that it does not impede the opportunities for people to succeed in their own lives. [Remarks continue in Cree]. This, my language that I speak to you now, that you have probably never heard, that is part of my personality. It doesn’t make me wrong or different, you have a language too. It’s called English. And I learned to speak it. I’m not asking you to speak Cree. But what I’m saying is, the fact I am different, in terms of my culture, my language, and so forth, doesn’t mean that I should be discriminated against. I have a right to be different. And if we, as a society, make that a basic principle, that all human beings have a right to be different, I think we’d go a long way to solving the intolerance that many people experience. Instead of putting each other down, we should be trying to lift each other up. Thank you.”
Mercredi’s insight added tremendous cohesion and substance to the conversation.
The Road Ahead
The challenges facing the Indigenous community are extremely complex and difficult. Solutions come with an extremely high degree of difficulty and could take generations before positive change is realized.
The danger of an article that labels a society as racist is that it might have the impact of causing the victims of that racism to focus their energy in an outward direction and reject the need for introspective examination.
That would be a tragic outcome.
Regardless, the stars have aligned in Winnipeg.
Never before has the leadership in River City been so incredibly congruent as it is today.
The press conference inspired a very powerful thing.
It’s called hope.
Hope, can change the game.