City Hall, Columns

Winnipeg: One Racist City

Our secret is finally out. The entire country now knows what most of us have known for years: Winnipeg is a very racist place indeed. Overt, structural, personal, systemic: Winnipeg offers a racism of every sort.

But are we the most racist city in Canada? Are we number one, or just in the top ten? DOES IT MATTER?

Maclean’s writer and former Winnipegger Nancy Macdonald has done Winnipeg a great favour in airing our dirty secret to the rest of Canada. With her recent article she has painted a damning picture of our city for the rest of the country to digest. Like turning on the light in the basement where vile acts of abuse no one in the family wanted to talk about took place. This is where it happened. Horrible things. Shameful things. In our own home.

But now the whole neighbourhood knows about us. No more hiding. No more lies. Just relief. Then acceptance. It happened. It is happening. And it has to stop.

Thanks to Macdonald’s piece and, importantly, the refreshingly honest response from Mayor Brian Bowman, no longer must we endure “debates” at dinner parties with otherwise intelligent acquaintances who assure us their objections to Aboriginal peoples are rooted in fact; that they aren’t racist because it’s different with Aboriginals.

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Last summer in the days after Gord Steeves’s wife’s intemperate and ignorant social media screed against “drunk Native guys” was exposed, room was given to those who shared her views. Drive-time radio shows actually invited listeners to weigh in on the matter, asking them whether or not they agreed with Ms. Steeves’s sentiment. As if somehow the matter was up for debate; as if somehow it was acceptable to draw ignorant, hateful conclusions about an entire people based on one woman’s alleged experiences traversing the city’s skywalks. Were it about any other group of people, say “gays, Jews or blacks,” as Macdonald noted in her article, surely there would be no debate: it would be rightly classified as bigoted stereotyping. Except it was about Aboriginals.

Shrug of the shoulders, knowing nod of the head, quick exchange of glances. I mean, we all know it’s true, right?

Except it isn’t. It never was. And now, thankfully, the entire country knows what we have been up to; how we have willingly turned a blind eye to the racism that has until now been given air time, column space, and bandwidth in this great city, in this friendliest of provinces.

There has been much debate since Maclean’s published Macdonald’s article about the veracity and the fairness of her piece. Some, like Bowman, have chosen to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths contained within the article; others, like PC Leader Brian Pallister, have foolishly dismissed them outright. Many have taken issue with the magazine’s cover and headline. A few have dismissed the article because Maclean’s magazine is published out of Toronto, thereby apparently rendering them unfit to criticize our western Canadian city. Such gripes sidestep the bigger issue: what to do about those tragic cases where systemic racism clearly contributed to the deaths of human beings, and where it continues to prevent individuals from getting a job, an apartment, even childcare.

Sadly, the provincial government refuses to review the findings of those toothless inquiries that failed to lay blame for the deaths of Brian Sinclair and Phoenix Sinclair. And the Winnipeg Police Service has yet to account for the actions of those officers who picked up Tina Fontaine, already listed as missing, then released her back into the darkness of the streets hours before she would be murdered. As heartening as it was to see so many important faces at that hastily organized press conference at city hall last week promising action going forward, we also owe justice to those who have already suffered from such vile discrimination, sometimes with their lives.

While there is no single measure or step we can take to eradicate this racist plague, we cannot rely on awareness or education alone to do so. No doubt accepting racism exists is an important first step — and kudos to those civic leaders who have done so. We also have to hold those individuals and institutions to account who have allowed themselves to be corrupted by it.