More than half Manitobans admit to doing something in the past they now realize was racist, according to a recent survey, while a majority of those polled believe racism continues to be a serious problem in the province.

Racist ingredients baked into Manitoba's 150th birthday cake

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A view of the previous St. Boniface College building before a tragic fire claimed ten lives on the night of November 25, 1922.
A view of the previous St. Boniface College building before a tragic fire claimed ten lives on the night of November 25, 1922.

Posted: 09/10/2020 7:00 PM

The steeple’s cross-tipped spire stabbed the sky, rising high above the domed architecture of old St. Boniface College like the outstretched fingers of the faithful grasping for heaven.

The flames worked quickly, their appetite for destruction insatiable as they licked their way up walls and down halls, shattered stained-glass windows and sucked up oxygen like kindling until the small blaze transmogrified into an inferno.

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The question on past racist behaviour was posed to Manitobans as part of a survey conducted Sept. 8-17 by Probe Research, in partnership with the Winnipeg Free Press.

To have half of Manitobans acknowledge their past racist behaviour is reassuring in some respects, said Katherine Starzyk, associate professor in social and personality psychology at the University of Manitoba and director of the Social Justice Laboratory.

"I would say that people are sometimes unaware of the things that they say as being racist. And my sense of things is that as a result of education and efforts of Indigenous, Black and other racialized people, and their allies, who are really trying to advocate for a better understanding of what constitutes racism, I think more people are becoming aware that things they’ve said in the past are racist," Starzyk said.

Following months of protests and social action across Canada and the United States demanding justice for victims of police violence and an end to systemic racism, Manitobans were asked if they agree with the statement: "I have said or done something in the past that, in hindsight, I now realize was racist."

To have half of Manitobans acknowledge their past racist behaviour is reassuring in some respects, said Katherine Starzyk

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

To have half of Manitobans acknowledge their past racist behaviour is reassuring in some respects, said Katherine Starzyk

Fifty-six per cent said they somewhat or strongly agree, 18 per cent said they somewhat disagree, while 26 per cent said they strongly disagree.

The survey included a random and representative sample of 1,000 Manitobans, and is considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 95 per cent of the time.

"I think that there is momentum around this sentiment — for sure around some groups and not others — and so I think that we can actually do something with this awareness," Starzyk said. "More people are getting a sense of the impact of some of the things that they said."

However, both pollsters and people doing anti-racist work in the province say in reality, the number of Manitobans who have done or said something racist in the past is likely much higher.

"Although some folks might look at it and say that’s progress, I see it through a lens, as many other community people would, in that there’s still a very dominant aspect of Manitoba that we have opportunity with," said Kimberley Levasseur Puhach.

‘Everyone at the table’: interventions to change attitudes on racism

While a majority of Manitobans believe racism is a serious concern, and half are willing to admit they've done something racist in the past, about one in five are resistant to accept racism is a problem.

“I don’t want to say they're unreachable, but they’re pretty tough to reach and tough to convince that there are systemic problems that we’re facing,” said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal with Probe Research.

According to a recent survey by Probe on Manitobans’ attitudes on racism, some demographics are less likely to think racism is a problem in the community.

While a majority of Manitobans believe racism is a serious concern, and half are willing to admit they've done something racist in the past, about one in five are resistant to accept racism is a problem.

“I don’t want to say they're unreachable, but they’re pretty tough to reach and tough to convince that there are systemic problems that we’re facing,” said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal with Probe Research.

According to a recent survey by Probe on Manitobans’ attitudes on racism, some demographics are less likely to think racism is a problem in the community.

Half of respondents who identified as Progressive Conservative supporters said they agree racism is a serious problem, compared to 89 and 82 per cent of their NDP and Liberal counterparts, respectively.

Sixty per cent of men agreed racism is a problem, while 80 per cent of women said it is an issue. Fifty-five per cent of people who identified as a first-generation Canadian said racism is a problem, though people were not asked if they are a visible minority.

(The margin of error is higher than 3.1 percentage points, 95 per cent of the time, in the subgroups).

Katherine Starzyk, an associate professor and director of the Social Justice Laboratory at the University of Manitoba, said research is ongoing at the laboratory to find ways to help people “feel more comfortable with the discomfort" of realizing something they've done is racist.

“When someone confronts you, whether or not you realize it, with something you’ve done as being racist, I think people really react defensively to that for the most part,” Starzyk said.

“We want to give them the psychological strength to do the difficult work that’s involved in confronting that side of themselves,” she said. “We’re trying to find the ways that we give people the strength to look at this as one of those things that may be challenging to do, but worth doing.”

Small educational interventions about white privilege, or how racism can manifest at personal and systemic levels, can be effective tools, and it’s important to engage with people who may hold contrary attitudes, Starzyk said.

“It’s hard, but we have to have discussions with everyone at the table and to understand where those attitudes are coming from,” she said. “Often, people don’t understand the motivations for some of this real hostility and polarization, and there is a lot of anxiety going around.

“We can build a better world together, but everyone needs to be respected — and that respect requires that we acknowledge the racist things that are happening and the long history of that in Canada.”

Hani Ataan Al-ubeady, director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, said his organization is developing a toolkit in concert with Indigenous partners to inoculate newcomers against adopting racist stereotypes and attitudes.

“There is a gap that exists between the Indigenous and newcomer population, specifically in the downtown and North End area and that’s been the case for years,” Ataan Al-ubeady said. “When I was a front-line worker years back, I remember seeing those examples in action."

Ataan Al-ubeady said newcomers are at times exposed to harmful stereotypes and myths about Indigenous people that aren’t being debunked. While they receive comprehensive training on everything from the legal system to banking on arrival, recent immigrants do not learn the history of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, treaties or contemporary Indigenous topics, he said.

The Indigenous Orientation Toolkit is meant to inform newcomers about Indigenous culture, issues and perspectives on Canadian history, and follows eight different themes. It is being piloted in the community today with 26 settlement workers and will be rolled out early next year, Ataan Al-ubeady said.

IPW also plans to launch an English as a second language curriculum that is centred around Indigenous content, including concepts related to land and treaties.

“The absence of education, the absence of healthy and authentic community engagement activities would result to division, lack of understanding and possibly and potentially racist behaviours,” he said.

“We need to create spaces for people to express themselves, so they can face their own ignorance first and then create a process for them to own the change that they aim to have.”

— Danielle Da Silva

Since 2016, Levasseur Puhach has chaired the Mayor’s Indigenous Advisory Circle and led the introduction of Winnipeg’s Indigenous Accord, in which signatories commit to meeting goals that respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's 94 calls to action.

"There is no blame-laying here, but until I think we can face racism right in the eye and really understand it, and own it... I would expect that if we were really moving the needle, that stat would say something like 90 per cent of Manitobans admitted to or believed they thought in a racist way or realized they did something racist," said Levasseur Puhach, an Anishinaabe woman and member of Sandy Bay First Nation.

"When we think of racism, I think we often think of what is very overt racism," she said. "I would imagine that most people would say they don’t agree with white supremacy, the Klu Klux Klan or any of those hate-mongering groups, but what this stat says to me is I don’t know if people are completely aware of the unconscious bias they have."

Of those polled, 26 per cent reported experiencing racism during the past year; 52 per cent of those identifying as Indigenous reported experiencing racism; and four-in-10 new Canadians said they experienced racism.

Overall, 70 per cent of Manitobans agree racism is a serious problem in the province, and overwhelmingly, eight-in-10 Manitobans say the division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Winnipeg is a serious issue.

"In our mind, when you get 80 per cent of Winnipeggers or Manitobans to agree on something, that’s a pretty unusual day," said Mary Agnes Welch, a principal with Probe Research. "So for me, I take a fair bit of comfort in that number that it is so high and that it is really strongly felt (44 per cent agree strongly there is a divide) that’s a healthy number."

That sentiment has remained consistent over the years, with 75 per cent of respondents saying in 2014 the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens was a serious concern.

Kimberly Levasseur Puhach, volunteer chair person of the Mayors Indigenous Advisory Circle.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kimberly Levasseur Puhach, volunteer chair person of the Mayors Indigenous Advisory Circle.

“We need to get there as individuals first, and then the government, educational institutions, and organizations should be doing it in tandem.” – Levasseur Puhach

"I think there probably is that core group of people, 20 to 30 per cent, who say it’s not a big problem in the province. Those are the folks that are just resistant to debate and resistant to this new way of talking about racism and systemic racism, especially, in the province and in the city," Welch said.

Levasseur Puhach said there has been progress since Winnipeg was labelled the most racist city in Canada by Maclean’s magazine in 2015, and work is ongoing to educate and engage the public and to change policies and systems across sectors, she said.

Over the last year, 35 signatories to Winnipeg’s Indigenous Accord reported 165 policies and practices were amended or adopted to recognize Indigenous rights and increase access and inclusion, and more than 20,000 employees from 51 signatories received education that responds to the TRC calls to action.

"We’re starting to say a lot of good things, but to make that rhetoric and hyperbole into action is where we really will get the change that we’re looking for, and that’s going to take time," she said.

Levasseur Puhach said the renewed focus on addressing systemic racism is energizing as a community worker but there’s still plenty of opportunity for the public to support change through individual education and advocacy.

"We need to get there as individuals first, and then the government, educational institutions, and organizations should be doing it in tandem," she said. "If you went back in history, there would be lots of evidence that we haven’t really moved the mark too much.

"Not to say that the good things that have happened aren’t important, but it’s not like it’s been exponential change, and we do need to ask ourselves why that is."

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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