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Amid emotional interruptions and one high-profile walk-out, Mayor Brian Bowman marked the one-year anniversary of Winnipeg’s designation as Canada’s most racist city by declaring 2016 the year of reconciliation.

And, at a two-hour event at city hall Friday, Bowman pledged an aboriginal accord like the one in place in Thompson, better training for city employees that will include the history of Indian residential schools, and more public recognition of residential schools. And, Bowman began handing out 500 blue plastic bracelets promoting Winnipeg’s diversity.

Bowman said, while critics may charge little has changed in the last year, the tone has shifted and the debate over racism has been reignited.

"We’ve been able to drive this conversation down to the individual level, where it really needs to occur," said Bowman, who promised in vain he wouldn’t get as emotional as he did during a press conference last year. "I am incredibly proud of how we responded last year. I’m proud of Winnipeg."

Bowman challenged Winnipeggers to find ways over the next year to respond individually to the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Friday’s event marked a year since Maclean’s magazine named Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, which prompted the mayor to host a summit last year and set up his own indigenous advisory council.

The event was briefly interrupted by a tearful Somali mother who told those gathered outside the mayor’s office that she hadn’t seen her three children for six years since child welfare apprehended them. At one point, Winnipeg Centre Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette shouted from the back, "Who took her children?"

After several moments, after city staff and Ojibway elder Randi Gage tried to calm her and Bowman agreed to meet with her, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Devon Clunis stepped in to lead the woman and her husband, both refugees, away to a nearby room.

Later, another woman asked to speak, and said from the podium that Manitoba is not friendly to newcomers, though she praised Bowman and encouraged him to run for Prime Minister.

Mayor Brian Bowman said he has reflected on the year following Winnipeg being labelled the most racist city in Winnipeg by Maclean's magazine.


Mayor Brian Bowman said he has reflected on the year following Winnipeg being labelled the most racist city in Winnipeg by Maclean's magazine.

Most speakers seemed unfazed by the interruptions, saying they were evidence many have problems that go unheard.

Justice Murray Sinclair, head of the Indian residential school Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the woman’s emotional speech represented the sense of injustice many people, especially indigenous people, feel about Indian residential schools of the past and child and family services today.

"That sense of injustice and that sense of loss and that sense of not being able to achieve one’s objectives, being able to achieve one’s sense our family, one’s sense of community is often also reflected in the feelings of our friends from other parts of the world," said Sinclair.

Northern Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson walked out of the event early on, saying she was angry no leaders from Treaty One first nations were given places of honour or a chance to speak.

"To me that is the ultimate representation of inclusion and respect for a nation in their own territory," said North Wilson. "It just shows we’re not there yet."

An impromptu change in the program did see Brokenhead Ojibway Nation chief Jim Bear invited up to speak shortly after North Wilson left.

The Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief also objected to the presence of a small number of Winnipeg police officers, including Clunis. North Wilson said Clunis has refused to meet with her to discuss racism in the police force.

Randi Gage, vice-president of the Council of Women of Winnipeg, told the audience that she was grateful her hair had turned from black to gray because, as a young women, she was often the victim of subtle and not-so-subtle racism, including being shadowed by security while shopping. She said Winnipeg has a one per cent — not of wealthy people but of hard-core racists that she hoped Friday’s initiatives would reach.

"Everyone has a little file drawer of racism," she said. "It’s there. We have to make sure we shut that drawer and lock that sucker up."

Sylas Parenteau, a Grade 10 student at St. John’s High School, said just last summer a motorist in the North End shouted "stupid Indian" at him as he tried to cross the road. Asked whether the mayor’s initiatives will alter the views of that motorist, Parenteau said it might be more effective to concentrate on the next generation.

"But everyone can change," said Parenteau, who is Métis. "I hope it will change them, and the way they see aboriginal people."