Winnipeg has never needed or desired validation from Toronto, so it was ironic to see Mayor Brian Bowman surrounded by our police chief and local indigenous leaders at an emergency press conference to deal with a story from Toronto-based Maclean’s magazine, which called Winnipeg “the most racist city in Canada”.
We don’t need any elites from the east to tell us that. We’ve known it for a long time.
The Maclean’s article is a typical, superficial look at this western city which never seems to find any favour with the self-proclaimed “Canada’s national newsmagazine”.
Nancy Macdonald, the reporter who wrote the story, talked to some First Nations citizens who have encountered racism on our streets, then cobbled together recent incidents like the failure to properly treat Brian Sinclair at the Health Sciences Centre with the racist Facebook postings of a Winnipeg high school teacher, to paint this city as the nation’s leader in racism against indigenous people — a claim that is impossible to prove but has certain validity, if it isn’t mostly one-sided.
The article begins with anecdotal evidence this city is racist, followed by a bunch of surveys and statistics that point out the negative attitudes that Winnipegers have towards indigenous people.
Things that we already know and we are admittedly struggling to deal with, but nothing that requires intervention from an outsider taking a snapshot.
The article goes way off track and begins to reveal its shortcomings when it goes on to present the most negative portrayal of human beings you might find anywhere, but specifically in Winnipeg’s North End, which is heavily populated by aboriginal people.
“Girls as young as 11 or 12 routinely work the stroll. On North Main Street, traffic slows to a stall when intoxicated residents stumble across the street. Solvent abuse is as common as alcoholism here, and rising. Even in December’s cold, kids as young as nine clutch gas-soaked rags; some have begun stuffing them directly into their mouths for a more powerful high.
“I used to tell myself I wouldn’t live to see my sweet 16,” says 24-year-old Jenna Wirch. “I was sure I was going to die before then.
"Both Wirch’s sisters committed suicide when they were growing up. Four of her closest friends have also died by suicide. One hung herself in an alley using her dog’s leash. She was 11. Wirch’s mom put her to work in the sex trade before her 10th birthday. She ran away at 11, then bounced between the street and a long list of foster homes. One was a crack house. Two friends were stabbed to death in front of her, one with a machete. This is a North End childhood.”
If this is the way it is, one might see why there is room for racism. But this isn’t the way it is in much of Winnipeg’s North End.
Sensationalism undermines the entire article
And it is this kind of sensationalism that undermines the entire article.
If the Maclean’s reporter would have spent any time at the Andrews Street Family Centre or with the William Whyte Residents Association or with the mostly indigenous parents at David Livingstone school, who have changed “little Chicago” (the Lord Selkirk “projects”) at the Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre, she would know that you can’t use isolated extremes to paint the entire picture.
But this might provide us with the first step in turning this city’s image around. Don’t let outsiders like Maclean’s magazine define us with sensationalist articles that exploit us.
The answers to our problems cannot be found buying into the innuendo “news tourists” provide.
The long-term answers are going to come from the philosophy and proposals put forth by indigenous leaders like Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, Treaty Commissioner Jamie Wilson, mayor Bowman, and police chief Devon Clunis.
Racism will dissipate when we achieve the equality envisioned from programs like Aboriginal Head Start, affirmative action, job training, education and economic and social development.
Simple things to reduce racism
In the meantime, there are some simple things that we can all do to reduce racism.
Most of it is common knowledge or common sense that we all know to do but for some reason we’re not doing it as much as we should.
Racism takes place when we perceive other people as inferior or we judge them by the myriad of negative stereotypes and rumours that exist.
So we can eliminate a lot of racism by not believing the misinformation that is so rampant out there.
An even more direct and practical way to reduce racism is not to allow one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch.
If you are an employer and you hire an indigenous person and that person routinely fails to show up to work, don’t hesitate to hire the next indigenous applicant. Most times, you will end up with a dedicated employee who is extremely grateful to have a job.
If you are a landlord who has experienced a bad tenant who destroyed your property, do not discriminate against the next family from the same group. Most First Nations tenants want a safe, affordable place to live where they can raise their family in a healthy way.
If you or your kid gets jacked for a cell phone on a bus by a gang banger, don’t judge all native youth as criminals.
There are 80,000 First Nations people living in Winnipeg, half of them under the age of 25. The vast majority are not in street gangs or have criminal records.
I can already see the internet postings against this article which cite examples of negative experiences people have endured but I maintain that these are exceptions to the rule.
Because if everybody was like the negative examples those postings will present, this city would have imploded in a racist apocalypse long before now.
But if you are a native person who is sleeping in and not showing up for work, or trashing a rental property, or stealing from your fellow citizens, stop it.
As your own rocker Aaron Peters says, “somebody is watching you and what you do impacts on a whole lot of other people who don’t deserve a bad rep.”
Yes, I know this is all pretty simplistic but maybe we need these simple reminders from time to time. We know the desire to overcome and eliminate racism overall is here, and in far greater numbers than the racists whose sensationalist statements and actions label our city negatively.
Witness the thousands of Winnipeggers, white, red, black and yellow, who turned out to march downtown after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body was found wrapped in a plastic bag in the Red River after being sexually exploited, murdered and then tossed aside.
Most Winnipeg citizens want to come together and defeat the racists who infect our city with their bile.
The Maclean’s article is a sensationalist view of Winnipeg by an outsider who took a superficial look at our city and told us what is wrong with us.
As I said, we already know we have a problem with racism in this city. And we know what to do about it.
The only problem may be that we are not doing what we should be doing.
Don Marks is the Editor of Grassroots News