Manitoba·Opinion

When tackling inequality in Point Douglas and other Winnipeg neighbourhoods, let's ask the right questions

A recent opinion piece on revitalizing the area "misunderstands Point Douglas as a community, and its current and historic dynamics of power with other neighbourhoods," says Kate Sjoberg.

Addressing the city's ongoing issues with poverty, inequality requires understanding our past: Kate Sjoberg

The Norquay Community Centre in Winnipeg's North Point Douglas neighbourhood. A recent opinion piece on revitalizing the area 'misunderstands Point Douglas as a community, and its current and historic dynamics of power with other neighbourhoods,' says Kate Sjoberg. (Google Street View)

"Fixing" poor neighbourhoods is a popular topic of debate in Winnipeg.

I submit that part of the reason equity is so hard to reach in Winnipeg is that we misunderstand the production of poverty, and fail to account for the power dynamics at its source. 

Calls for inclusionary zoning, land trusts, protection of non-profit housing, and yes, secondary plans are indeed helpful — but why have the hoped-for outcomes of these and other strategies (for example, healthy lives for all Winnipeggers, through access equity to good, safe housing) been so difficult to reach?

Why don't we already enjoy this reality? Very strong context is offered in Owen Toews's recent publication Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg, which I rely on for some of my following arguments.

A recent CBC.ca opinion piece on Point Douglas would be strengthened by this type of insight.

I appreciate and respect authors Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman and their many contributions to the city over time — including the much-needed campaign for public washrooms, support for Thunderbird House, their championing of Main Street, and more.

While their writing here is inspired by their own recent community consultation, named Listening to the Community in North Point Douglas, it would be helpful to clarify which portions are from the neighbourhood and which are their own ideas. In my read, some of the liberties taken in the piece betray their commitment to amplifying neighbourhood priorities.

For one thing, the writing boldly declares that Winnipeg as a whole should take an active interest in visioning and developing Point Douglas. The last time this happened, the Bombers were booted out from a proposed Point Douglas site to what is now Investors Field. Worth taking note to avoid mistakes of the past. 

The piece is further weakened when it laments Point Douglas's lower property values — despite the fact that many residents share a concern that increasing property values contribute to homelessness; offers a confusing, aspirational statement that Point Douglas should look to Armstrong's Point's example; and fairly vague claims toward reconciliation.

As such, the piece misunderstands Point Douglas as a community, as well as historic dynamics of power with other neighbourhoods, and actual calls for justice.  

In the centenary year of the Winnipeg General Strike, the 150th anniversary year of Louis Riel disrupting surveyors sent from the east and in the middle of an ongoing crisis in housing, poverty, and health, we can't afford platitudes and we can't afford erasure.

Pathologizing of the poor

Inequality in this city has always been created by choice, and in spite of resistance from marginalized people defending their own interests.

The patronizing tradition of well-off beneficiaries of ongoing exploitation, divestment and theft of capital from the north and inner-city neighbourhoods of Winnipeg to the south side of the tracks — and later the suburbs — has always included victim-blaming and pathologizing of the poor.

Let's be clear that these attitudes are often present within communities experiencing "decay" themselves — I have heard board members of community organizations in West Broadway, Spence, and North Point Douglas lament versions of the refrain that if only their community were more like River Heights in this or that way, things would be better.

An archival photo of employees at Vulcan Iron Works in North Point Douglas. Historically, Winnipeg's wealthy have pitied the state of poorer families in neighbourhoods like Point Douglas, Kate Sjoberg says, and pointed to their culture or upbringing as the source of their poverty: not the fact that the wealthy themselves controlled wages and working conditions. (Manitoba Archives)

It was the original wealthy homeowners of Armstrong's Point who, in part, made up the Citizens' Committee of 1,000 who fought the strikers from Point Douglas — organizing for fair wages and working conditions so that they could support their families in their small Point Douglas cottages.

Prior to the strike, and afterwards, it was those same Armstrong's Point residents who pitied the state of poorer families in Point Douglas, and often pointed to their culture or upbringing as the source of their poverty: not the fact that the wealthy themselves (and their friends), controlled wages and working conditions.

We might draw parallels today to suburban residents living in new developments who fear venturing to inner-city or North End neighbourhoods, and who are wont to draw lazy conclusions rather than economic ones.

Indeed, the economic reasons are always more difficult since they implicate every single one of us, rather than inaccurately sloughing off the responsibility onto — for example — a racialized group of people.

Asking the wrong questions

It's no secret that a developer lobby combined with weak city leadership have contributed to generations-long trends of investment in new, unsustainable developments — subsidized by the divestment of older, poorer neighbourhoods.

These dynamics are baked into our city infrastructure. I sympathize with those who would rather talk about, say, building historic landmarks than fighting against these historic dynamics.

These days, it can seem we are more likely to see leaders push to rename city infrastructure than work to make the kinds of changes that would bring justice to our communities.

What will it take to achieve proper funding for the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, or rooming house policies that ensure safety and health for residents?

How can we prevent the ongoing closure of public housing? How can we achieve income and jobs policy that would solve poverty and start to lessen our mental health and addictions crisis?

Isn't this the way, though? These days, it can seem we are more likely to see leaders push to rename city infrastructure than work to make the kinds of changes that would bring justice to our communities.

To me, the piece asks the wrong question. It's not "how do we include the North End as a part of a city we are proud of?"

Instead, it's "how can we interrupt our city's ongoing tradition of misappropriating land, wealth, and assets so that every community can thrive, of its own accord?" 

I look forward to conversations going forward that centre this intention.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Kate Sjoberg lives in North Point Douglas.

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