Digging up the roots of racism in Winnipeg won't be easy
It is refreshing to see Winnipeggers talk openly about racism in light of Maclean’s latest cover story, but we will not resolve racism against indigenous communities until we dig deep into the colonial roots that have allowed racism to become what it is today.
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This is a discomforting reality, but one that must be faced if there is ever to be heartfelt reconciliation. We all suffer, though very unequally, from many kinds of discrimination and we all stand to benefit from confronting our shared history.
The Maclean’s article states what many of us already know: we live in a city with deep racial divides. Unless, of course, you are Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister.
“I would object to that observation ... it’s not my experience,” said Pallister, comfortable in the knowledge that he has not experienced racism as a white man. That’s a relief.
Nevertheless, racism is a visible and daily reality for the majority who do not live in Pallister’s Neverland. Sensible people can agree on that much. Still, speaking about racism as an indigenous phenomenon has its problems.
Firstly, it erases racism faced by other communities in the city. The growing Ethiopian population in downtown Winnipeg experiences racism, as do the Chinese and Filipino communities.
Maclean’s suggests that Winnipeg is “the most racist city” in its typical sensationalist fashion, but the magazine has done so by erasing the beautiful diversity this city has, along with the racism these communities face.
Secondly, and more problematic still, speaking about racism in the indigenous context allows us to evade its deep roots. Racism is one among countless problems that stem from Winnipeg’s colonial reality and ongoing legacy.
Policies of deliberate starvation and forced reallocation enacted in the prairies under John A. Macdonald amount to “ethnic cleansing and genocide,” writes medical historian James Daschuk in his seminal book, Clearing the Plains. This is a reality that the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights uncomfortably evades.
Speaking to any indigenous community-member in Winnipeg and you are never more than a story away from residential school survivor stories, forced displacements from families like the Sixties Scoop, or any number of other cultural and physical traumas.
If we are going to talk about racism toward indigenous communities in Winnipeg, we must do so by facing our shared colonial context. The more heavily this reality is suppressed, the more loudly it will bubble to the surface.
“We were born into the system, and now we are trying to change it,” said Jenna Wirch, a young community activist from the North End known as Megaphone Girl, speaking of her experience in Idle No More in the beautiful book, The Winter We Danced.
We created this system, and we have a responsibility to change it. Digging up the colonial roots of racism is not a painless affair, and requires that we dig deep into ourselves and how we choose to relate to each other. But it is a necessary task with no shortage of challenges, and signs of real promise.
Matthew Brett (@mattbrett_1984) is a community organizer, writer and member of the Canadian Dimension magazine editorial collective.