December 11, 2018

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Opinion

Bridging the divide on Indigenous issues

In a grainy campaign video titled “Jenny on Downtown Winnipeg Revitalization,” the scene pans down Main Street as mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk says: “Businesses need customers to thrive, and the customers will not come if it’s not safe to walk a couple of blocks, especially at night.”

Two Indigenous men are shown, standing at a bus stop. Behind them, it is suggested, are “empty” storefronts.

Most, in fact, are not empty but host service organizations, including Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, which is one of the most vital arts organizations in Winnipeg.

The video cuts to the intersection of Main Street and Higgins Avenue, where the Winnipeg Police Service’s Gurkha tactical armoured vehicle — a military-style, 7,700-kilogram virtual tank with eight gun ports — drives by.

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In a grainy campaign video titled "Jenny on Downtown Winnipeg Revitalization," the scene pans down Main Street as mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk says: "Businesses need customers to thrive, and the customers will not come if it’s not safe to walk a couple of blocks, especially at night."

Two Indigenous men are shown, standing at a bus stop. Behind them, it is suggested, are "empty" storefronts.

Most, in fact, are not empty but host service organizations, including Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, which is one of the most vital arts organizations in Winnipeg.

The video cuts to the intersection of Main Street and Higgins Avenue, where the Winnipeg Police Service’s Gurkha tactical armoured vehicle — a military-style, 7,700-kilogram virtual tank with eight gun ports — drives by.

"Too many of us have personal experience with being threatened, or worse, while walking downtown," Motkaluk says, "When I’m mayor of Winnipeg, public safety will be a priority."

An Indigenous woman then smiles and hugs Motkaluk.

I’m not making this up. I couldn’t write a more paranoid scene describing how some Winnipeggers feel about the core area. Or, what some wish — or fantasize — would be done about it.

Mayoral campaigns are interesting in Winnipeg, especially when it comes to how the core area and Indigenous peoples are characterized.

During the 2014 civic election, it was revealed mayoral candidate Gord Steeves’ wife had tweeted in 2010 she was "really tired of getting harassed (sic) by the drunken native guys in the skywalks… We all donate enough money to the government to keep thier (sic) sorry assess (sic) on welfare so shut the f**k up and don’t ask me for another handout!"

Steeves apologized and argued his wife posted the statement out of "fear and anger." Interestingly, around the same time, he went from being a front-runner to a fringe candidate. He finished a distant fourth, with just nine per cent of the vote.

This was also the election in which more than 15 per cent of voters supported Robert-Falcon Ouellette and fellow mayoral candidate Judy Wasylycia-Leis made Indigenous issues a central part of her campaign (cards on the table: I was part of her campaign). Wasylycia-Leis finished second (25 per cent), behind Brian Bowman (48 per cent), who is running for re-election Oct. 24.

So here we are, with another mayoral race, and Indigenous issues have come to the forefront again.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk doesn’t have any overt promises on Indigenous issues on her website.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk doesn’t have any overt promises on Indigenous issues on her website.

I’m not saying Motkaluk wants a tank driven to Main and Higgins, a bunch of profit-driven businesses replacing community service organizations, and to be seen as a "friend of Indigenous peoples," but, hey, this was her video.

This leads to the recent omnibus poll by Probe Research commissioned by the Winnipeg Free Press and CTV Winnipeg. It suggests 81 per cent of Winnipeggers agree the division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens is a serious issue. This is up from 75 per cent in 2014, when the same question was asked.

I, for one, wasn’t surprised. There is increasing poverty in the city. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported in January that "low-income Manitobans are falling further behind" due to a low minimum wage, rising housing costs, and inadequate employment and income assistance.

The effects are being felt in the core area: the loss of Neechi Commons and other businesses, the struggles of the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre, and the continuing perilous situation of the Thunderbird House.

Indigenous peoples are feeling the hardest side of increasing poverty.

Every mayoral candidate realizes this divide on some level. According to the poll, there’s even an argument to be made that almost every Winnipegger understands this, too.

The Probe Research poll uncovered something else: 90 per cent of Bowman supporters agreed the Indigenous/non-Indigenous divide is serious, compared with only 66 per cent of Motkaluk supporters who think that way.

This could be because Bowman — for good or bad — has made a significant part of his first term about engaging Indigenous issues. He has founded an Indigenous advisory circle, mandated cultural competency training for City of Winnipeg employees, and declared 2016 as Winnipeg’s "Year of Reconciliation."

At the same time, though, poverty and closures have also happened on Bowman’s watch. Winnipeg police bought the Gurkha armoured vehicle during his term, in 2015.

On Motkaluk’s website, there are many campaign promises, most of them on increasing business and public safety. This means hiring more police in schools, on buses, and on streets. However, she has no overt promise on Indigenous issues. But there’s still time. I just hope Motkaluk doesn’t perpetuate the old representations I see in her "Revitalization" video.

Winnipeggers want answers to address the poverty that Indigenous citizens experience. On my glass-half-full days, I believe the paranoia the rich have about Indigenous peoples is due to guilt and confusion over the unfairness and heartlessness Indigenous peoples endure.

Revitalization doesn’t come from more police and profit, though, it comes from investment. Investment not from imposing solutions, but those gained from sight, time, and commitment.

Winnipeggers need to see the core area much in the way I wish Motkaluk could see Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art in her video — as a place where citizens build their own solutions.

As activist Michael Champagne (from the weekly "Meet Me at the Bell Tower" peace walk in the area) says: the core area doesn’t need saving, it needs Winnipeggers to join them in creating a community we can be proud of.

That’s how you bridge a divide.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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