Winnipeg's young leaders gather to discuss racism in our city

Dozens of young leaders gathered in Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood on Tuesday to attend a CBC Asks event on tackling racism in our city.

Dozens gather in Point Douglas to discuss racism in Winnipeg

A group wrestles with the question of how to address racism in our city. (Tyson Koschik / CBC Manitoba)

Winnipeg has been living with the distinction of being Canada's most racist city ever since Maclean's magazine leveled the accusation nine months ago. This week, Manitoba's largest city is coming together to do something about it.

On Thursday, Mayor Brian Bowman's sold-out One Summit will bring people from across the globe together for two days to discuss racial inclusion. Thursday will also see "Our Summit" provide an alternative venue for people unable to attend the mayor's event.

On Tuesday, CBC Manitoba gathered almost 30 community leaders — representing several of our city's cultures and ethnicities — and asked them to spend three hours talking about racism in our city.

Provide opportunities for children from all backgrounds and communities to come together.- Nicole Barry

Keynote speaker and University of Manitoba Native Studies instructor Tasha Spillett began the afternoon by challenging some of the commonly held tropes about racism that have come forward since the Maclean's article was published.

"You can't claim racism doesn't exist unless you survived it," said Spillett, addressing some critics of the article who claimed they don't see racism in their city.

She continued by saying it is important to think of racism as a social construct that gives power to some people, while robbing it from others. Spillett encouraged the leaders to "look critically and constructively at [themselves]" and challenged them to really think about what words we use mean.

Learning how to draw strength from our own background will teach us how to move forward.- Tim Stevenson

"I want to acknowledge that we're on traditional Treaty One land … but what does that mean?" Spillett said.

The event was moderated by Information Radio's Marcy Markusa, who began by asking attendees to imagine a Winnipeg where their kids can say, "In my pursuit of success, my race is not a factor." But some of the people challenged that sentence immediately.

"Race should be a factor," argued Diane Roussin. "But not a limiting one. Without race, who would we be?"

An impossible goal?

Joseph Ranseth said eradicating racism is a goal we may never realize. He pointed to Martin Luther King Jr., who was successful in getting a civil rights bill passed in the United States, but never realized the full reality of the dream he had talked about in his most famous speech.

Change is not an event, but a process and begins with a discussion.'- Leah Gazan

Lenard Monkman, one of the organizers behind Thursday's "Our Summit," said educational institutions have a responsibility to teach the "true history" of our nation to Canadians and "create an understanding about indigenous and non-indigenous issues."

"What needs to happen in this country is an understanding of history," Monkman continued.

He also challenged the attitude that widespread racism isn't a problem in our city: "Some of us, because of where we were born, or the colour of our skin, always have to think about racism," he said.

People need to get their hands dirty; talking is only half of the solution.- Kyle Mason

Markusa then directed the conversation to what barriers are getting in the way of a city where race is not a factor in success. But again, the notion was challenged.

"I don't think people who have suffered oppression need to talk about barriers," countered Monkman. He said acknowledging the privilege that is granted to some groups in our society is one of the keys to addressing racism in our city.

Challenges of talking openly

At this point, the leaders began to discuss the challenges of talking openly about racism in a group as diverse as this one. Several expressed discomfort and fear over saying what was really on their minds.

Spillett brought the conversation into focus by saying "feeling uncomfortable for half a day is nothing compared to the atrocities some people face every day." She added that "not [talking about it] and avoiding [the conversation] is not going to get at the core of the issue."

We all serve as examples, and need to continue to learn, empathise and engage in this space.- Chris Loewen

Monique Woroniak focused on the idea of who has the power in our society. She argued that our city has increasingly looked to the private sector to help our communities over the last 40 years, and argued this was a massive barrier to a more inclusive society.

One group argued that the past was the biggest barrier to inclusion and we need to focus on the future.

"The past does not affect our starting position; we can take two steps forward and one step back, or we can stand still," said Hijab Mitra, the group's representative.

However, this notion was immediately challenged by Abdikheir Ahmed.

"The past is what has put people in historically powerful groups, and they need to take responsibility for their privilege," Ahmed argued.

I believe in people, and one person does make a difference.- Lucas Stewart

Monkman was one of the last people to speak, saying all the positive steps our city has taken since the Maclean's article are "planting the seeds in people's heads, breaking stereotypes and creating opportunities for each other."

He closed by saying a lot could be accomplished in our city if "when you see me on the street, say hello."

The final task Markusa gave to the groups was to come up with an idea for getting to the Winnipeg that we all want to live in. These quotes have appeared throughout this article.