Out in the Open

The divide between Winnipeg's oldest and newest residents is starting to heal

A legacy of mutual distrust between new immigrants and Indigenous people in Winnipeg is being bridged by those who’ve made it a priority to cross that divide with open hearts and minds, while encouraging others to do the same.

A legacy of mutual distrust between new immigrants and Indigenous people in Winnipeg is being bridged

Jenna Wirch has been building bridges with community members from the Indigenous and newcomer population in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Jenna Wirch)
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"The only thing that I can recall growing up in Kenya was those cowboy movies where the white guy always hunted the Indians," Abdikheir Ahmed says. "I never knew anything beyond that."

Ahmed is recalling his first introduction to Indigenous people or, rather, to stereotypes about them.

When he immigrated to Winnipeg in 2003 and first met an Indigenous person, the encounter also left him with little more than stereotypes.

He and a friend were standing outside a new-immigrant welcome centre while the friend had a smoke, when a stranger asked for a cigarette. On-lookers told them the stranger was Indigenous and had likely wasted all of his money on alcohol.

You have all these resentments toward newcomers that they're getting all of our resources.- Jenna Wirch

Ahmed says his experience turned out to be typical. He notes that little information is communicated to newcomers about Indigenous people and the legacy of colonialism, which leaves a lot of room for stereotypes and misunderstanding to take root.

A tense relationship

Meanwhile Jenna Wirch, an Anishinaabe activist, had a hard time growing up in Winnipeg, facing down those stereotypes coming from all directions, including from new immigrants. And, she says, the pre-judgment and mistrust was mutual.

"You have all these resentments toward newcomers that they're getting all of our resources. Or why doesn't the Canadian government fix its own problem in its own backyard? And those negative narratives were passed to us as children," says Wirch.

Ahmed and Wirch both say you can really see the tension in some parts of Winnipeg, in city parks, on basketball courts and public pools, where new immigrants and Indigenous people avoid each other and stick to their own spaces.

Building community relationships means things like barbecues and basketball games. (Submitted by Jenna Wirch)

Building trust

Wirch now works with Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and other organizations to set up community-building events where people can meet face to face, and discover their commonalities.

"We're both the same. We're both brown, right?" she says, laughing. "We all share the land."

Ahmed now works with Immigration Partnership Winnipeg to give newcomers better introductions to Indigenous Winnipeggers than the one he got. He says he feels he owes it to the people who have lived here the longest.

"I feel bad that there are tremendous opportunities for me ... and tremendous opportunities for my children, which Indigenous children who are in foster care … and kids in brought up in the reserve system do not have," he says.

Abdikheir Ahmed, co-ordinator of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, speaks at Meet Me at the Bell Tower’s event on Oct. 14, 2016. (Courtesy Greg Littlejohn)

For her part, Wirch says that Indigenous people have been welcoming to newcomers for hundreds of years, and that it's good to focus on that "foundational love."

This story originally aired on March 4, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Crossing Divides".