Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A sad tale of two cities

Schism between social strata depressingly clear

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If you take a long walk, drive or bike ride around Winnipeg, it doesn't take long to notice the gulf between the rich and poor.

Affluence and poverty coexist in this city pretty much the same way they do in practically every other North American metropolitan area. There are haves and have-nots in this town, often within the same neighbourhood.

Nobody really likes to talk about it, as discussions about income disparity tend to shatter the illusion there's no structural inequality in this society.

Most of us were brought up to believe everybody gets rewarded economically on the basis of their effort, desire, acquired skills and perhaps education, not the postal code of their upbringing, the colour of their skin or the connections afforded by the favourable outcome of some genetic lottery.

Theoretically, any Winnipegger can overcome any obstacle. But real Winnipeggers in truly difficult situations often find the odds against them stacked up so high, they no longer place any stock in what sociologists like to call "agency" -- the capacity of any individual to act independently and make choices of their own free will.

As a result, affluent people tend to believe they can in fact achieve any goal they can imagine, while the impoverished tend to believe their lives are governed by fate or other forces beyond their control.

To back up this statement, I could cite surveys conducted over the decades. Or I could simply implore you to visit a convenience store and observe who's buying lottery tickets. Or maybe spend a few hours in one of our depressing casinos.

The rich and poor in Winnipeg may not be two entirely separate solitudes, but people at the extremes of the spectrum maintain belief systems so different, they might as well inhabit two different towns. Perhaps this is a little dark for Sunday morning on April Fool's Day, but the lack of social cohesion in this town seriously depresses me.

On one hand, Winnipeg can be an amazingly warm place where complete strangers are always ready to give your car a boost or push it out of a snowdrift, at least during the winters when we have actual snowdrifts and dead batteries.

On the other, this can be a cold, indifferent and resentful town, where rich and poor alike are mistrusted by the majority of us who make up the fuzzily defined middle class -- or believe we inhabit this economic middle ground.

And when class resentment gets mixed up with ethnic hatred, the resulting racist cocktail makes me embarrassed to call myself a Winnipegger. So on a day when journalistic custom calls for practical jokes, I'm going to do the opposite and make a deathly serious plea.

Last Sunday, in a column that attempted to dissect recent events from a public-relations standpoint, I included a charitable donation by the Asper Foundation in an attempt to provide a little contrast.

My intention was to show an Asper family gift of $2 million to the Assiniboine Park Conservancy was not a PR move at all. But I clearly didn't make my point very well.

Over the next two days, my email inbox was polluted by hateful rants against the Asper family that displayed a deeply resentful eat-the-rich mentality and sometimes bordered on anti-Semitism. As the author of the words that unwittingly provoked this sentiment, I'm sad, disgusted and regretful.

So although no one has asked for an apology, I owe one to David, Gail and Leonard Asper. But I'm going to go further and ask some of the pettier minds in Winnipeg to reconsider the scorn they heap upon all philanthropists, who deserve our collective admiration for their efforts.

This may go against the populist grain, but the well-heeled one-percenters of this city -- the Richardsons, Aspers, Buhlers, Moffats, Chipmans, Pollards and less well-known names such as Hastings, Blankstein, Burns and Gray, to mention a few -- do a lot of the heavy societal lifting governments and quasi-governmental agencies are either unwilling or unable to do.

You could argue philanthropy is simply a moral imperative for the wealthy. You might say it's only responsible for the affluent and successful to return some of their wealth to the community.

You would be absolutely right, but that does not diminish the effect of their charitable acts, as only a completely unreconstituted neo-Marxist could wander around Winnipeg and ignore the contributions of the all-too-often ridiculed elite.

Readers and friends alike often accuse me of being a contrarian. Well, I'm sad to say sticking up for the Aspers may be a minority move in a city that loves to hate the rich.

And paradoxically, this is also a city that loves to hate the poor, blaming the residents of poverty-stricken inner-city neighbourhoods for the violence and misery they would love to escape, if only they believed they could.

Winnipeg may not be Apartheid City in the South African sense of the term, but we certainly deserve the moniker when one ethnic group -- First Nations -- stands out from all the others on every indicator of health, income and education you can imagine.

As the product of a middle-class family in a middle-class, ethnically homogenous suburb -- Garden City in the 1970s and '80s was predominantly Ukrainian, Jewish and Polish, in that order -- I grew up without observing desperate need or experiencing racism first-hand. In retrospect, the Winnipeg of my youth was a Norman Rockwell fantasy world.

The Winnipeg I see today is often divided, deluded and hateful. And the denial of inequality seems to be a popular sport. But this city is not beyond hope. I must believe this.

Today is April Fool's Day. Don't make one out of yourself and try to see the city around you through the eyes of others -- rich and poor, white and brown, intensely hopeful and bitterly negative.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2012 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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