'Us versus them': Programs mend strained relations between Indigenous, newcomer communities

The relationship between Winnipeg’s newcomer and Indigenous communities is often a strained one, marked by stereotypes and misinformation, but a number of organizations are trying to calm the discord.

Education on Indigenous history should be priority for newcomers, some say

Warda Ahmed, 27, (left) and Rayne Graff, 32, are participating in a 10-week circle of reconciliation with five newcomer and five Indigenous women, bringing the communities together. (Kaitlin Vitt)

The relationship between Winnipeg's newcomer and Indigenous communities is often a strained one, marked by stereotypes and misinformation, but a number of organizations are trying to calm the discord.

However, some say it will take active participation from everyone to break down the misconception, educate one another and make things better.

"Unless it's a conscious, consistent effort by everybody at a community level, it won't reach its full potential," says Warda Ahmed, community recreation co-ordinator at Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

Ahmed, who was born in Somalia and raised in India, is one of 10 women participating in a 10-week circle for reconciliation that started Oct. 26 at the council.

Five adult women from each of the Indigenous and newcomer communities are taking part.

The circles are intended to help build relationships with Indigenous people and for the women to discuss what reconciliation means to them. It's one way to overcome the negative stereotypes that create misunderstandings and prejudice.

"Negative stereotypes hurt," she says. "It's being unjust to a story and a group of people."

Abdikheir Ahmed, co-ordinator of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, speaks at Meet Me at the Bell Tower’s event Oct. 14. (Courtesy Greg Littlejohn)

Rayne Graff, a member of Long Plain First Nation who is also participating in the circle for reconciliation, believes members of the two communities need face-to-face meetings to better understand one another and dispel the fallacies that exist. 

"I find in talking with people, they need to learn our history, so that they can understand why things are the way they are for us," she says, adding some people in the Indigenous community have an "us-versus-them" mentality toward newcomers.

That stems from the fact the two communities are often in a similar socio-economic class and have to split some scarce resources, like housing.

Graff, a volunteer and community services programs assistant at Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, thinks education about Indigenous people should be integrated from the minute newcomers arrive.

For example,  Indigenous elders could be invited to settlement agencies to  share Indigenous history, she says.

​According to the City of Winnipeg's 2012 Community Trends Report, immigration of newcomers has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years with the number of arrivals increasing from 2,200 in 1997 to over 11,000 in 2011.

Before newcomers arrive in Canada, they get an orientation through the Canadian Orientation Abroad program. The program includes information on housing, health and employment but doesn't have much about the history of Indigenous people in Canada, says Abdikheir Ahmed, co-ordinator with Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, an organization that helps newcomers integrate into Winnipeg.

IPW is developing an orientation manual that will have more information about Indigenous people and their history, so newcomers receive accurate information in advance. The hope is for the manual to be available next year.

Many things in common

To create positive relationships, IPW has worked with organizations such as  Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre to foster welcoming events for the Indigenous and newcomer communities.

Meet Me at The Bell Tower is a weekly meet-up in Winnipeg's North End to demand an end to violence, celebrate diversity and discuss neighbourhood issues. (Courtesy Greg Littlejohn)
Given the chance to meet and talk, Indigenous people and newcomers find they have much more in common than they thought, including the importance of food and prayer, respect for elders and having a village approach to raising children, said AYO founder Michael Champagne.

"I think it's a relationship that's emerging," Champagne says.

"When folks often are new to Canada, they don't get a positive image or even an accurate image of Indigenous people's contributions to the history of Canada," he said. "They don't know the legacy of Indian residential schools, and they often aren't even educated about that there are Indigenous people still present in Canada."

AYO and Meet Me at the Bell Tower — a weekly meet-up in Winnipeg's North End to demand an end to violence, celebrate diversity and discuss neighbourhood issues — hosted an event Oct. 14 that brought people together from the Muslim, newcomer and Indigenous communities.

Champagne hopes events like that can be an example, showing that the communities can work together.

This is one in a series of stories written for CBC Manitoba by Red River College journalism students that looks at ways conflict abroad has shaped Winnipeg.

Other stories in the series: