A respected indigenous elder who was kicked out of Portage Place mall in February was honoured there Friday for his role in sparking positive changes and a more culturally-inclusive environment.
"Things have changed," said Joseph Meconse, who still frequents the mall nearly every day to visit with friends.
"There's more people coming here. There's more freedom of movement for the people — for the elders, for the aboriginals and everybody else."
Not only is Portage Place more welcoming, it announced Friday that it has hired an indigenous company to take over security responsibilities at the mall.
Meconse, a war veteran and active member of the community, was asked by mall security to leave in early February moments after he sat down to eat. At the time, the mall had a rule that people could only sit in the food court for half an hour without food.
Meconse spoke out about it, resulting in a protest and drum ceremony, with more than 100 members of the indigenous community joining hands for a round dance around the food court.
"Now the public knows what's going on. And they're going to do something about it. Make it easier for the poor people," said Meconse.
During the protest, someone called for a boycott of the mall, but Meconse wanted to be part of the solution.
"Aboriginal people have been condemned for quite a while and it's about time somebody spoke up. And that's exactly what I did. And now this is the result of it."
As it turned out, mall staff and members of Winnipeg's downtown core listened.
"Everything is much better now," he said. "The way I think, it's yesterday. It happened in the past. I don't worry about it."
Securitas, the company previously in charge of security at the mall, will be getting increased sensitivity training in dealing with indigenous populations.
"We are the meeting place, for people from all communities," said David Stone, manager of Portage Place.
"Portage place deals with many situations from medical concerns to substance abuse issues to conflicts between individuals. For the most part, in my opinion, these issues are dealt with in the correct manner. However, sometimes we do get it wrong," he said.
Bear Paw, an indigenous security company, has been brought in to improve relations with indigenous customers, said Stone. The company has extensive experience in working at aboriginal events.
"Most importantly, we would like to start the process of moving forward, by apologizing for the errors of our past," said Stone. He announced that the mall, in connection with the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, will host a series of indigenous musical acts in spring or early summer.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde called Stone's apology "reconciliation in action."
"Good job what you're doing … fantastic work," he said, asking that the collaboration continue for the sake of future indigenous generations.
"I ask you to make room in your heart and your mind and your spirits; to get rid of the misconception that First Nations and Indian people are dumb, stupid, lazy, drunk on welfare. That is so passé," he said.
"We've got First Nations people that are doctors; that are lawyers, that are business people, that are scientists, that are movie stars and we're living healthy lifestyles."
Leaders from the indigenous community joined mall staff and the Downtown Winnipeg Biz at the mall Friday at 10 a.m. for the announcement of short- and long-term goals for making the mall more welcoming, inclusive and safe.
"We have heard from our community and are working proactively with the business community to form concrete solutions to create change," Lisa Meeches, executive director of the Manito Ahbee Festival, said in a statement.
A round dance and drum ceremony followed the presentation.
Meconse was also given a special Ogichidaa designation, which in Ojibwe means warrior, veteran; a ceremonial headman.
"It's an honour, but at the same time, when you earn something, you earned it. You get praise for doing what you did," Meconse said. "It's a beautiful feeling. I want to thank everyone for being here. I will carry my duties as best as I can."