The most poignant moment of Mayor Brian Bowman's two-hour event Friday declaring 2016 the Year of Reconciliation in Winnipeg was an unplanned one.

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This article was published 23/1/2016 (2094 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

The most poignant moment of Mayor Brian Bowman's two-hour event Friday declaring 2016 the Year of Reconciliation in Winnipeg was an unplanned one.

A Somali woman in the crowd stood up. Her head was covered in a saffron-coloured scarf. Her mittens, twisted in her hands, were emblazoned with the word 'Canada.' She said she came here as a refugee, and she hasn't seen her children for six years -- since child welfare apprehended them. Her voice was unsteady, but strong.

She broke down into tears, questioning why she had to give up her rights as a mother.

"Good for her," a woman standing next to me remarked. "As a mother, I would have done the same damn thing."

It sounds like the stuff of a click-bait headline: A woman interrupts a press conference, you won't believe what happens next! But what happened next reaffirmed the reason we were gathered at city hall Friday.

Three women held her in an embrace. Michael Champagne, the founder of Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, offered her a smudge. Mayor Bowman agreed to meet with her. And when police Chief Devon Clunis led her away to a quiet room, he had his arm around her. It was a moment of humanity and compassion. A moment of action.

Of course, words matter here, too. If the words "Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada's Race Problem Is At Its Worst," hadn't appeared in bold black font on so many of our computer desktops a year ago today, we might not have spent the last 365 days having difficult conversations -- with ourselves and with each other. Bowman might not have hosted the event addressing the article last year, or the summit that followed. He might not have set up his own indigenous advisory council.

A tearful Somali mother told those gathered outside the mayor's office that she hadn't seen her three children for six years since child welfare apprehended them.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A tearful Somali mother told those gathered outside the mayor's office that she hadn't seen her three children for six years since child welfare apprehended them.

To be sure, the words in Maclean's cut deep -- and I'm not just talking about some particularly grabby cover copy. They were sharp, and they hurt.

As Wab Kinew said in his remarks Friday, those words forced us to reconcile something within ourselves, "that Winnipeg is a great city, that we're good, kind people -- but that we have a problem with racism." Both statements are true.

And while we're on the topic of words, racism isn't just about slurs and name-calling. Racism can be insidious, institutional, systemic and violent.

It can be inherited. It can be unconscious. Challenging it is hard, exhausting, uncomfortable work. And, as was made clear Friday, we all have a responsibility, as individuals, to do that work.

Leadership. Diversity. Winnipeg -- those are the three words that circled the blue rubber bracelets that were passed out at the beginning of the event. (The bracelets also bore the URL to Mayor Bowman's website, which felt weirdly self-promotional.) Reconciliation is a word we heard a lot, too.

It's a legitimate concern that these words -- diversity, reconciliation -- will be rendered meaningless buzzwords, the kind that are slapped on cheap bracelets that will inevitably end up in junk drawers. Or that events such as Friday's amount to little more than some showy feel-goodery.

But as Bowman listed the work that is already going on in this city, from the Winnipeg Boldness Project to the anti-violence community group Meet Me at the Bell Tower, one could also feel optimistic about the fact good work is happening here. That Winnipeg has some real leaders who are affecting real change. That real action is being taken.

We, as citizens, have the power to shape this city's legacy. Whether it's known as the racism capital of Canada or the reconciliation capital of Canada isn't up to a magazine from Toronto. It's up to us.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti