It used to be, when people asked me where I was from, I would anticipate a negative reaction. The moment I answered "The Pas," they would inevitably ask about the Helen Betty Osborne case, the bar fights and the racism.
"Is it as bad as everyone says?"
Now when people ask me, I have an inspiring story to share -- one that points to the power and the change that can occur when even just two people with open hearts and willing minds, sit down over a cup of coffee. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the relationship between the town of The Pas and The Pas Indian Band (now Opaskwayak Cree Nation) was infamously negative. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, the original partnership, established when Treaty 5 was signed in 1875, was a positive one. Sadly, over the decades, it declined.
As my older sister remembers, the theatre in town became segregated, and before that, "natives" needed passes to get off the reserve. I remember stories of a rite of passage for white kids that involved throwing an aboriginal person off the bridge into the river and, worse, stories of a trophy album kept by a group of town guys who severely beat aboriginals, then took a picture with a boot on the heads of their victims.
The racism went beyond daily interactions on the street. It saturated the school system, where reserve students were routinely streamed into 01 and 02 courses. My sister, now with a Harvard doctorate, was streamed into non-university courses when she entered Grade 9 -- like every other aboriginal student. It was only when our mother went into the school that the principal of the day said, "Oh, I didn't realize her mother was white" and she was put back in the 00 courses.
So yes, things were bad, very bad. But that was then and not now, when relationships are once again reverting to positive.
Change started rather unexpectedly when the chief began plans to build a mall on the reserve. The business community in town petitioned the government to stop the project, as they saw on-reserve progress as having a negative effect on their profits.
A councillor on the reserve at the time recalls, "I remember calling a businessman who was well known in the community for his racist views. He was 100 per cent against the mall project. We went for lunch and started getting to know one another. His opposition slowly evaporated and now I see him all the time on the reserve, having coffee at Tim Hortons or shopping in the mall."
The bottom line is that individuals on both sides of the Saskatchewan River began taking responsibility for the relationship. A core group from the OCN made a concerted effort to seek out key business people in The Pas with a simple goal: get to know them on a personal level. They started visiting them in their stores, taking them for coffee and breaking down barriers.
With each conversation, a barrier was broken. With each coffee, a stereotype smashed. With each handshake, a bridge built.
Building bridges isn't an easy endeavour. It takes willingness on both sides and, like any relationship, constant effort. In the end, it wasn't the sole work of these visionaries that brought The Pas and OCN together, though they led the way. It was economic development.
When the Otineka Mall opened on Opaskwayak Cree Nation, it paved the way, literally, for a Shell gas station, which now has one of the highest sales volumes in Western Canada, the three-star Kikiwak Inn ("your home" in Cree), an IGA, a pizza parlour and more.
Of course, Otineka also became an economic engine, demonstrating that what benefits OCN benefits The Pas and vice versa.
What began as two very different worlds on either side of a river are now interconnected communities forged by the bridge that economic development built.
Now when people ask me where I am from, I tell them The Pas and OCN -- communities focused on a positive future for us all. As a province and country, if we can find no other way to start working together in a meaningful, productive way, maybe we should have a cup of coffee and discuss a mall.
James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples of the province.