Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What Gord Steeves should say today

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Gord Steeves has wasted a valuable opportunity in the days since his wife's reprehensible and ill-considered comments about panhandlers were made public. Mr. Steeves is running for the mayoralty and has a well-organized campaign machine behind him -- he knows the value of getting out in front on an issue and framing a message for the best possible effect.

That is why it is bewildering that the former city councillor, one of eight candidates for Winnipeg's top political office, has chosen to hold off for five days to respond to Lorrie Steeves' post on social media in 2010. Ms. Steeves, in a pique over chronic panhandling, played upon all the vile stereotypes in blowing off steam over being approached for her pennies. She demeaned and dismissed not just the beggars on downtown streets, but urban aboriginals who live daily with the racist and ignorant rants about drunks and freeloaders that infects the cultural relations in this city, which holds Canada's largest metropolitan urban-aboriginal population.

Ms. Steeves apologized Friday. She said she worked downtown and was tired of being "regularly harassed" and made to feel unsafe. She noted she does not clear her Facebook posts with her husband.

Ms. Steeves is not running for office. But Mr. Steeves, like many politicians, has featured his wife on his campaign website as part of his political branding. The fact Mr. Steeves, a front-runner who has capitalized on media interest in the race with numerous issue-oriented policies, has delayed his response could cause some voters -- and citizens who are desperate for cooler, thoughtful heads to prevail -- to wonder whether he knows his own views on the matter.

To be clear, all of Winnipeg needs to hear this candidate disavow the comments. Further, he should handle the issue with the serious consideration required of homelessness, addictions, unemployment and the overrepresentation of the city's native population in those areas.

Panhandling and alcoholism are not symptoms of a population that chooses not to work, which is what Lorrie Steeves implied. They are the unfortunate, trickle-down result for many people who have lived the social dysfunction aboriginal communities suffer due to a history of racism in Canadian political policy, institutions and social engagement. The high reliance upon welfare is the logical effect of colonial attitudes and laws that pushed First Nations people onto reserves all but devoid of economic basis, isolated from the Canadian community and economy and forced their young children into residential schools where they lost language, culture and sense of family.

First Nations urban dwellers have proven resilient, however. Obviously they want to be productive, contribute to society, to see their children educated and successful.

Mr. Steeves has said he will address his wife's 2010 comments today. He has had ample time to reflect upon an appropriate response and his remarks should reflect the fact he understands the basic history of relations with aboriginal people in this country. He must disavow the unfortunate attitude held by too many Winnipeggers, posted by Lorrie Steeves on social media.

More helpfully, he should not just outline how he plans to move intoxicated individuals off downtown streets, but also pledge to make Winnipeg's urban-aboriginal strategy robust. The strategy cannot simply fund workshops and recreation for youth. It must focus on moving more unemployed adults into job training and address addictions and mental-health issues with counselling as the complex issue demands.

These are areas of provincial and federal jurisdiction, primarily. There have been some hopeful initiatives, most obviously the Housing First project. The next mayor must move federal and provincial counterparts to renew the urban-aboriginal strategy, signed four years ago, to redouble efforts to integrate homeless, unemployed Winnipeggers into the city's economy.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2014 A8

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Updated on Tuesday, August 12, 2014 at 8:09 AM CDT: adds photo

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