Bowman becomes Winnipeg’s first indigenous mayor
Takes on responsibility for helping bridge the divide
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/10/2014 (3071 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Days after election night in Winnipeg, mayor-elect Brian Bowman is still digesting the immense magnitude of his victory.
By defeating Judy Wasylycia-Leis by a margin of more than 53,000 votes, Bowman won a landslide that exceeded the one earned by outgoing Mayor Sam Katz during his first victory in 2004.
Bowman has a very broad mandate to pursue his somewhat urbanist-progressive agenda, with the help of a council featuring seven other new faces. But almost lost in the sheer size of Wednesday’s win was a major milestone for this city: Brian Bowman is the first indigenous mayor in Winnipeg’s 140-year history.
Given this city has Canada’s largest indigenous population — by sheer numbers as well as proportion — it is of no small significance we now have a Métis mayor.
“That’s awesome,” Bowman said Friday in an interview, saying he wasn’t aware he was Winnipeg’s first indigenous mayor until an APTN reporter pointed it out to him.
“I’ve never shied away from expressing who I am, and I take great pride in it. But I’m a Winnipegger first and foremost. I want all people to take pride in who they are.
“I think there is an opportunity to express to younger indigenous kids that Winnipeg is a place where your dreams can come true.”
Bowman’s ethnic background played no role in the mayoral race. No one expected it to do so, given Winnipeg voters have demonstrated they couldn’t care less about the gender, sexuality or ethnicity of their leaders.
In 1992, voters didn’t care Susan Thompson had two X chromosomes when she won the wide-open race to replace Bill Norrie and became the first woman to serve as mayor. In 1998, voters didn’t care Glen Murray is sexually attracted to men when he won the race to replace Thompson and became the first gay mayor of any larger Canadian city. And in 2004, voters didn’t care Sam Katz fasts on Yom Kippur when he won the race to replace Murray and became Winnipeg’s first Jewish mayor.
Yet there is something more significant about Winnipeg electing its first indigenous mayor. This is only partly because about 80,000 out of our 708,000 residents are First Nations, Métis or Inuit.
There’s history at play, both rather old and very recent. Manitoba was founded by a Métis-led coalition in 1870 at what is now Winnipeg. When the new city was formed three years later, our first mayor was a Métis-hating racist.
Indigenous Winnipeggers existed as second-class citizens for many decades before they won the right to do simple things such as vote or enter a licensed establishment. Only in recent decades did open discrimination against indigenous Canadians disappear here.
What’s obvious is anti-aboriginal racism in Winnipeg largely went underground. Non-indigenous Winnipeggers can pretend they don’t see it, but Winnipeggers who cannot pass for some other ethnicity continue to complain about being viewed with suspicion wherever they go.
While infrastructure and ethics were the top issues in this city’s mayoral race, the divide between indigenous Winnipeggers and the rest of the city was the not-so-subtle subtext for the campaign. There was the emergence of Lorrie Steeves’ “drunken native guys” rant only hours after her mayoral-candidate husband pledged to round up intoxicated people. There was the exploitation, disappearance and murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, who was last seen alive — intoxicated in a downtown alley — the same day Gord Steeves promised to get rid of downtown drunks.
There was the discovery of both Fontaine’s body and that of drowned “homeless hero” Faron Hall on the same day. There was the inquest into the 2008 death of Brian Sinclair, ignored for 34 hours in an emergency-ward waiting room. There was the sexual harassment of Inuit musician Tanya Tagaq on a Winnipeg street while she was here to perform in a ballet depicting the sexual assault of indigenous women.
And in the background there were the unacceptable statistics: Indigenous Winnipeggers are doing better, but remain less likely than their non-aboriginal counterparts to graduate from high school, have a job and earn a good living — and are more likely to grow up in single-parent families, suffer health problems, go to jail or become victims of violence.
“There is a lot of healing that has to happen,” Bowman said last week at a fundraiser for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, when asked about Winnipeg’s great divide. “Whoever is elected mayor has a responsibility to build bridges between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal community.”
No one expects Brian Bowman to close a 140-year-old ethnic chasm on his own. But now that he is not just our mayor but our first indigenous mayor, he will be expected to do what he can to make this city whole.