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Putting together a piece of history

Urban aboriginal project seeks to document past

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Researchers are digging through basements and interviewing aboriginal activists and organizers to piece together a missing but vital part of Winnipeg's past.

"There really is no urban aboriginal history that's been put together," said Darrell Chippeway, an interviewer and researcher with the Urban Aboriginal History Project.

"There's little bits and pieces. I'm trying to gather those and stories from people involved."

The Manitoba Research Alliance, made up of the universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, community groups and government, are supporting the project. It's sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

"Winnipeg was ground zero for a number of aboriginal organizations," said Chippeway. He's trying to gather their reports, records, meeting minutes, notes and photos from as far back as the 1960s -- before they end up in a dumpster. He's interviewing the people who were on the front lines back in the day and too busy to take notes.

"We didn't document things very well, we were so busy doing the work," said Kathy Mallett. More than 30 years ago, she was a working single mom and activist in her spare time as Winnipeg's urban aboriginal community took shape.

"A lot of the work we were doing was organic and we didn't have a lot of funds to do it," said Mallett, a member of the history project's advisory committee.

"We were responding to the issues of the day," she said, recalling one incident in 1983. "It was the death of a child in (Children's Aid Society) care at the time. Her mother was living in the Native Women's Transition Centre." An aboriginal coalition rented a bus to take demonstrators to the society's annual general meeting, Mallett said.

"We were demanding more of our people on their board of directors. We had to get their attention," said Mallett, who was the first executive director of the Original Women's Network.

"They knew we were coming -- there were police cars all around the hotel." The demonstration made national news, but behind the scenes, any meeting minutes or records from the aboriginal groups involved have been destroyed or forgotten until now.

"The stories aren't always pretty," said Chippeway.

After the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry issued its final report in 1991, police were mandated to take two-day cultural awareness training, said Mallett. "Some officers would turn their back to the instructor the whole two days."

Today, an aboriginal star blanket is the backdrop for Winnipeg police press conferences, said Mallett.

"You'd never see that in the '80s," she said.

A lot of the programs and services we see today came out of Winnipeg's Indian and Métis Friendship Centre, said Chippeway. Founded in 1958, it became a model for centres across Canada. It spawned the Main Street Project, aboriginal court translators and hospital cultural interpreters.

Women have been the driving force behind improving the lives of urban aboriginals in Winnipeg, Chippeway said he's learned.

"We were the ones raising the children and looking after the seniors. You've got to be responsible for your community," said Mallett, the co-director at the Community Education Development Association.

The history project is winding down in a few months but, it's not too late for information and photos to be submitted, said Chippeway, who can be reached at 204-988-7540. Materials remain the property of the owner but are under the stewardship of the University of Manitoba, where they'll be archived and accessible to the community.

Creating an archive of Winnipeg's urban aboriginal history was U of M economics Prof. John Loxley's idea.

"This reminds people of their enormous initiative, creativity and constructive proposals that are being made all the time." said Loxley. "Some really fine people have thought carefully about what they're doing and there will be a proper recording of history."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 4, 2013 A6

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