Winnipeg inner-city groups have lessons for Canada on reconciliation, researchers say

Community groups in Winnipeg's inner city are ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing Canada's historic oppression of Indigenous people, the authors of a new report say.

State of Inner City report says grassroots reconciliation efforts 'chronically under-supported'

Niigaan Sinclair, acting head of the department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, says grassroots inner city organizations are leading reconciliation efforts in Winnipeg. (CBC)

Community groups in Winnipeg's inner city are ahead of the curve when it comes to addressing Canada's historic oppression of Indigenous people, the authors of a new report say.

"What we uncovered was that while the rest of the country is struggling to understand and conceive of and enact this idea of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples … people in Winnipeg's inner city are enacting it every day," said Niigaan Sinclair, acting head of the department of Native studies at the University of Manitoba.

The people within Winnipeg's inner city are leading the way at creating a Canada that should have always been and can be- Niigaan Sinclair

"They're doing it because they love and they believe in our community."

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' 2016 State of the Inner City report, released Tuesday, details how Winnipeg inner-city organizations have been working toward reconciliation for years, despite being "chronically under-supported" by government.

Sinclair and two doctoral students in the department of Native studies, Tamara Margaret Dicks and Timothy Maton, co-authored the report.

Past incarnations of the report have presented findings on poverty and homelessness, among other issues facing residents in Winnipeg's inner city.

This year, researchers focused on reconciliation and community-driven efforts to implement the 94 recommendations of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining residential schools.

TRC recommendations in action

The TRC recommendations, released in June 2015, placed an emphasis on educating Canadians about the "cultural genocide" that occurred at residential schools, and urged governments to work together to help repair generations of harm done to Indigenous people in the process.

Sinclair said groups such as the Bear Clan Patrol and Aboriginal Youth Opportunities stand out as positive examples of grassroots organizations that other jurisdictions should model their own reconciliation strategies after.

Bear Clan Patrol co-founder James Favel helps search for missing people in Winnipeg's North End and elsewhere. (Canadian Press)

At the front lines of reconciliation are Michael Redhead Champagne (founder of Meet Me at the Bell Tower and Aboriginal Youth Opportunities), James Favel (co-founder of the Bear Clan Patrol) and Leslie Spillett (former Winnipeg Police Board member and co-founder of Ka Ni Kanichihk) — community leaders who are creating "healthy and sustainable relationships" in the inner city that need to be celebrated, Sinclair said.

They represent a handful of the "often underpaid" or volunteer-based groups of people working to strengthen bonds between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Sinclair said.

Michael Redhead Champagne is the founder of Meet Me at The Bell Tower and Aboriginal Youth Opportunities. (Submitted by Sharon Champagne)
The weekly meetings hosted by Champagne on Selkirk Avenue bring people in the North End together to discuss problems facing the community, while the Bear Clan Patrol, led by Favel, and other watch groups help search for missing people across the city and provide an added sense of safety to the community.

Through Ka Ni Kanichihk, Spillett and others have helped support at-risk Indigenous people and develop cultural programming. 

And that work embodies the spirit of the TRC recommendations, Sinclair said. 

"They are doing the work the rest of the country is trying to catch up to."

Winnipeg's 'racism problem'

Sinclair writes in the report that being labelled the most racist city in Canada by Maclean's magazine in January 2015 spoke to something many Indigenous people in Winnipeg have known for a long time.

Winnipeg has the largest Indigenous (25,970) and Métis (46,325) populations of any urban centre in Canada, but it isn't necessarily that Winnipeg is "more racist" than other cities, Sinclair said.

"It's not Winnipeg that has a racism problem, it's Canada that has a racism problem. We just see it more in Winnipeg," Sinclair said.

"We have a very burgeoning, humongous, employable Indigenous population that's entering the workforce faster than any other population within the city."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman declared 2016 the Year of Reconciliation about one year after the Maclean's article was published. He helped bring Indigenous leaders together with politicians and community members to form an urban Aboriginal accord designed to recognize the role Aboriginal people have played in Canada.

Mayor Brian Bowman, who is Métis, choked back tears in January 2016 as he addressed an article in Maclean's magazine that suggested Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada.

Researchers found many of the inner-city groups interviewed for the report appreciated the gesture in spirit, but remained apprehensive about what exactly Bowman hoped to achieve.

Regardless, groups like 13 Fires that formed in the wake of Bowman's declaration have facilitated dialogue about racism in unique ways, and communities outside of Winnipeg should take notice, Sinclair said.

"You won't find that in other cities because Winnipeg has a particularly keen population that has been dealing with these issues going back to the 1960s and '70s."

Governments not doing enough

There's an optimism about progress made on reconciliation at the community level, but there's also a clear message in the report that what progress has been made has come with little to no financial help or political will from governments.

The people within Winnipeg's inner city are leading the way at creating a Canada that should have always been and can be- Niigaan Sinclair

"If we're trying to talk about having healthy and sustainable relationships, it's almost impossible to do that when we have governments that are failing to listen to the people with which they are trying to reconcile," Sinclair said.

"At the same time, we can't be held back and wait for government to do the work, to create healthy and sustainable relaitonships."

Sinclair hopes the report moves all levels of government to devote more resources to underfunded community-based reconciliation efforts and leads to more representation of Indigenous people at decision-making tables.

"They are the people that are the least supported but are doing the most amount of work, and so it's really an illustration that while we misrepresent the inner city as being a place of despair and struggle, it's actually a place today of revitalization and resurgence," he said.

"The people within Winnipeg's inner city are leading the way at creating a Canada that should have always been and can be."

With files from Nadia Kidwai