Winnipeg's changing, says writer of Maclean's article that called city racist

The journalist who wrote a story that called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada says a year after the article appeared, Winnipeg is changing.

'Things seem very different to me here,' says Nancy Macdonald, writer of article

Nancy Macdonald wrote the Maclean's article that said Winnipeg is arguably becoming the most racist city in Canada.

One year ago today, a front-page Maclean's magazine said "Winnipeg is arguably becoming Canada's most racist city" — but the journalist who wrote that story says the city is changing. 

Former Winnipegger Nancy Macdonald took heat for her article, which had the headline "Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada's racism problem is at its worst."

Macdonald will attend an event at Winnipeg City Hall on Friday where Mayor Brian Bowman will look back at the year's accomplishments in promoting racial inclusion and chart a course for the future.

Macdonald was in studio on Friday to speak to CBC's Marcy Markusa on Information Radio

Marcy Markusa: Did you anticipate the kind of reaction you got to the story when you put it out there?

Nancy Macdonald: I knew it would be controversial. I had no idea it would be as big as it was and that discussion would get so heated in Winnipeg.

Why do you think discussion about your article blew up?

That conversation didn't start with me. There was a conversation going on starting that summer with the murder of Tina Fontaine. There was a mayoral election where Rob Falcon-Ouellette was facing racism on the campaign trail. These discussions were happening and that discussion carried on with the article and there seemed to be a hunger to have that kind of open, frank talk.

You sense a change at the grassroots level. Things seem very different to me here.- Nancy Macdonald

What kind of effect did the response to your article have on you?

People assume that it's a fun place to be as a journalist. I can tell you it's not. It was intense and there were a tough few days there.

Was it the headline that garnered the strongest reaction?

I think it was. It was a tough headline. It was a difficult cover. The dark cover, it was meant to attract discussion. I didn't write that headline but I stand behind it. It did what it was intended to do — draw attention to something that we felt wasn't being addressed and create some discussion. 

On Thursday, Winnipeg's reputation could not have been further from what it was in September, when the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened. "Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada's racism problem is at its worst," a headline in Maclean's read, when it was published online Thursday morning. 1:38
Is there anything you would have done differently in retrospect? 

No, I stand behind every word of that article. We didn't actually call Winnipeg the most racist. What we said was Winnipeg was arguably becoming the most racist city in Canada. It was a city with a troubling racial divide that was leading [to] real hardship in the North End, and it wasn't being addressed in any meaningful way. That has changed, from the mayor's office, certainly, and you sense a change at the grassroots level. Things seem very different to me here.

What kind of feedback did you get that stayed with you?

I couldn't believe the response. I thought Winnipeggers handled it with intelligence. I don't think you would have seen that from any other city in the country. It was remarkable. Sure there were people who wanted to fight back and maybe they were in the majority, but there were a lot of people who took this as an opportunity to address these questions head on. That will always stick with me.

What aspects of your journalism were questioned? 

The critique primarily seemed to be that I didn't mention in the lead that people like Tanya Tagaq had been assaulted by an indigenous person, which it turned out that was false. Tina Fontaine, it turned out, was murdered by a non-indigenous person. I found the critique kind of bizarre. I didn't address it, because I didn't feel it was important to address. What I was talking about was the fact that this community was facing these challenges — this level of violence. I don't care who's responsible for it. That's why it wasn't addressed in that piece. 

Mayor Brian Bowman says the police budget has gone up by triple the rate of inflation and the Winnipeg Police Board has plenty of room to work within the $280 million allocated to avoid staff cuts. (CBC)
What are you hoping to hear from the mayor today?

I hope that what we hear from Mayor Bowman today is that this is going to be a continued effort — that because we've past this deadline, that doesn't mean we can let up. I hope this remains front and centre for him. His response last year was emotional. It seemed genuine to me, and I imagine that's what we're going to see from him.

What's going to make the changes we're seeing in Winnipeg effective?

I spoke with Justice Murray Sinclair a few months ago, who headed the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] of course, and he said real change isn't going to come from government — it's going to come city by city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, family by family — and those words have stuck with me. We can't expect governments to do this work for us. It's going to come from us. It's going to come from the grassroots level. It's going to come when attitudes shift.