Being neighbours: From South Sudan to Winnipeg's North End
Mandela Kuet has faced racism in Winnipeg and is a role model for newcomers
This story is part of the Black on the Prairies project, a collection of articles, personal essays, images and more, exploring the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Enter the Black on the Prairies project here.
When Mandela Kuet arrived in Winnipeg at 13 years old, one of his relatives gave him a bike. It came with a warning: watch out for Indigenous people and make sure they don't take it.
"A lot of people around me didn't get along with Indigenous people because of the stereotypes that are there," Kuet said.
"I didn't see it that way."
Kuet was born in Rumbeck, South Sudan, and spent a good portion of his childhood living in Cairo, Egypt. His family immigrated to Canada in 1998. He remembers moving to Winnipeg's North End, a neighbourhood with a large Indigenous population, soon after they settled.
As a youth trying to navigate a new country and culture, Kuet found friends in Winnipeg's inner city through the game of basketball. One of them was an Indigenous person named Brandon.
Despite the early warnings from his relative to stay away from Indigenous peoples, Kuet said he quickly learned what he had in common with families like Brandon's.
"My friend, Brandon, his mom, she was working like three jobs, and his older sister was helping — [it was] the same thing with my older sister, she was helping my parents who were working," Kuet said.
I think it's important to bridge some understanding between the two groups because they do share a lot of the same experiences.- Mitch Bourbonierre
He spent a lot of time visiting his friend's house and said this early relationship helped to reinforce positive images of Indigenous people.
It didn't come without challenges. Kuet said that he got into some fights in his youth and experienced racism growing up in the inner-city.
"Growing up in the North End [there were] people that didn't like me, you know, because I was Black and I was in the North End and they didn't think I should be there," Kuet said.
Later, as a father of two raising kids in the North End, Kuet had to deal with a racist incident at their school.
"I remember one time just going in there and apparently [someone said] get this N-word out of here, you know, to my kids and I was just like, 'This dude is like my neighbour,' " Kuet said.
"So I just looked at the person … 'Look, you know, our kids live in the same area. I wouldn't want my kids to be racist toward your son and I don't want you to be toward mine.' "
Getting involved in the community
As his kids attended William Whyte school, Kuet noticed there were more and more newcomers from all backgrounds moving to North End.
A friend recommended that Kuet get onto the school's board of directors. In 2014 he was able to join as the newcomer "Neighborhood Immigrant Settlement Worker" program's advisor.
Not only was the board an opportunity to learn more about the initiatives that were happening in the community, but it was also a chance to meet its change makers.
"I really got to understand the community. They got me involved in a lot of the things that were happening in the area," Kuet said.
In 2015, he met Cree advocate Michael Champagne at an event designed to welcome newcomers. Kuet said that it was one of the first times that he felt truly welcomed by the Indigenous community.
"From that moment, I was like, 'OK, now I'm going to be more intentional about what kind of activities and efforts that I can put into this, because I can see that we can bring people together. People that would never speak to each other,' " said Kuet.
Resources and a better understanding
Champagne, a lifelong resident of Winnipeg's North End, said the Indigenous community has had to get used to being neighbours with an increasing newcomer population. He believes tensions exist between the two communities due to perceptions of competition for resources.
"I hear a narrative around access to services, access to resources and, most specifically, access to housing," said Champagne.
Over the years since Champagne and Kuet met, they have collaborated on several sports-related projects that bring the newcomer and Indigenous populations together. They also started a podcast called RealTalkWpg that aims to build a better understanding between the two communities.
"Indigenous and newcomer relations are important in places like the North End because the North End has always been a community of immigrants," Champagne said. "It has always been a community where all the folks that live here often are struggling with the same socioeconomic challenges."
Mitch Bourbonierre is a Métis man and a community leader in Winnipeg's inner city. He said that Indigenous and newcomer populations have a "shared experience around racism, poverty and not being accepted by the mainstream."
"I think it's important to bridge some understanding between the two groups because they do share a lot of the same experiences," Bourbonierre said.
Bourbonierre said Kuet's work shows his heart is in the right place. The two met through the Gang Action Inter-agency Network (GAIN), an organization that helps young people exit gangs.
Kuet now runs a non-profit organization called HOOD FAMS INC, which aims to prevent newcomer youth from getting involved with gangs.
Last year he hired Vanda Simard to help run a safe space for youth in Winnipeg's West End. Simard said it is open to youth from all backgrounds.
"There were white kids, there were Black kids, and there were Native kids. And he treated them as all equal," said Simard.
"One thing about Mandela [Kuet], is that he really has a lot of love and passion for these kids and for the youth … You can just tell that he loves them and he really cares about them."
Kuet said that while it's important for organizations to foster relationships, the biggest changes will come from the personal relationships built between members of the two communities.
The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.