Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/10/2018 (334 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, academics Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen Robertson studied more than 40 Canadian regional and national publications between 1869 and 2009. They conclude, with stunning uniformity and blatant evidence, Indigenous Peoples appear continually in "three tropes: depravity, innate inferiority and a stubborn resistance to progress."
Media did not just mirror Canadians’ attitudes about Indigenous Peoples, but constructed them, encouraging readers to see Canada’s violent policies not only as rational but justifiable.
"Colonialism has always thrived in Canada’s press," according to Anderson and Robertson.
On Friday, researchers Evelyn Peters, Matthew Stock and Adrian Werner will launch their book Rooster Town: The History of an Urban Métis Community, 1901-1961 at McNally Robinson Booksellers. Coincidentally, the launch will take place at the former Rooster Town site.
Rooster Town was a largely Métis community that existed on the southwest fringes of suburban Winnipeg from 1901 until the late 1950s. Disenfranchised during the rise of the city and marginalized by policies that left the Métis with virtually nothing, 21 families moved to uninhabited land near what is now Corydon Avenue and Pembina Highway in 1901.
As the city expanded, the community was forced to move southward, eventually ending up where the Grant Park Shopping Centre, Pan Am Pool and Grant Park High School stand today.
At its peak in 1946, more than 250 people lived there, constituting one of the largest Métis communities in Winnipeg.
Rooster Town consisted of working-class people who delivered water door to door, performed domestic duties and enlisted to fight in both world wars. Its citizens, while mired in poverty, literally built Winnipeg.
In the 1950s, city council sold the land to a developer and announced plans to build Grant Park Plaza, featuring a shopping centre and high school for incoming, wealthy residents. The residents of Rooster Town — some of whom, ironically, paid property tax — refused to leave, claiming rights as citizens. Their calls went unheeded, and in 1959, then-mayor Stephen Juba and city officials evicted them and burnt their homes to the ground.
In the new book by Peters, Stock and Werner, however, some startling evidence has come to light.
In the years leading to the levelling of Rooster Town, media from the city’s two daily newspapers (Winnipeg Tribune and Winnipeg Free Press) not only negatively represented the community, but participated openly in cheering for its removal.
"Their articles would describe Rooster Town people and their living conditions in ways that would titillate and distance the community from the largely middle-class readership," according to Peters, Stock and Werner, and "in the process, reporters simplified and homogenized residents and their housing, obliterated the complex processes and histories that created the community, and embarrassed Rooster Town residents... despite extensive evidence to contradict them."
Regularly, media would paint residents as backwards, dangerous and unsanitary. In December 1951, after a school trustee complained homes in Rooster Town were unsanitary and children were rampant with skin infections (both untrue), the Free Press ran a front-page article entitled Village of Patched-Up Shacks Scene of Appalling Squalor.
That same day, the Tribune called Rooster Town "one of the stickiest social problems in the Winnipeg area."
Media stories focused almost completely on the violence and rampant use of alcohol, and featured photos of the poorest housing. "Rooster Towners were depicted as a threat to the growing city," Peters, Stock and Werner write.
The community was also personified as a financial drain. Reporters "constructed a homogeneous picture of the community’s inhabitants as uniformly welfare-dependent, all unemployed and all living on land they did not own," the researchers document, because citizens there were "a liability and they would never fit in and prosper as Winnipeggers."
The Tribune reported in 1951: "The discouraging thing to welfare workers is that they’re not sure the people of Rooster Town want anything better" and children who lived there "really didn’t have a chance from the moment they were born."
Media from elsewhere contributed to the shaming, too. In 1944, Toronto-based national magazine Flash had a reporter cite Rooster Town as evidence "Winnipeg can lay claim to the dubious distinction of being the most backwards city in Canada."
Media "made Rooster Town seem ‘placeless,’" Peters, Stock and Werner write, "ephemeral, unstable and constantly moving, which suggested that dissolving the community had few consequences."
Following the removal and construction of Grant Park Mall, media finally framed Rooster Town as forgettable.
The Free Press ran a story in 1969 entitled "Winnipeg’s Rooster Town... Remembrance of Things Past" which stated that "it was impossible to find anyone who lived in the old town or even anybody who knew somebody who lived there... But if you’re interested why not take a stroll late one night, when the shoppers have all gone, across the deserted car park... Maybe in the prairie wind you’ll hear the far-away call of a rooster and the echo of some wild party; maybe the secret is with the prairie wind?"
What’s remarkable about this story is not that media is political, but one of the city’s institutions — a place I work at and care about — participated in one of the city’s most violent events. It makes one reflect deeply about our job as storytellers, and our responsibility and ethics in the stories we tell.
Read Rooster Town for yourself. Don’t wait for the secret of the prairie wind.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, October 16, 2018 at 6:25 AM CDT: Adds photo