Four years after electing its first Indigenous mayor, more Winnipeggers believe the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents is a serious issue.

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Four years after electing its first Indigenous mayor, more Winnipeggers believe the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents is a serious issue.

That's good news, says the president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg. People have to understand there's a problem before it can be fixed, said Damon Johnston.

"If Canadians have a high level of ignorance about the division, how can we get support from other Canadians to put pressure on the government to get better at investing in the things we're doing?"


Johnston was responding Thursday to a new Probe Research poll that asked residents if they agree with the statement: "The division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens is a serious issue in our city."

The survey, which was conducted for the Winnipeg Free Press and CTV News Winnipeg, found that 81 per cent of Winnipeggers agree with the statement, up from 75 per cent when they were asked during the 2014 civic election campaign.

An increase in the number of Winnipeggers who acknowledge there is a divide, can be seen as "the first step" towards bridging it, said Probe Research associate Mary Agnes Welch.

"I take some solace that the number of people who think there's a problem has gone up," Welch said. The numbers clearly show a majority of adults from all over the city, young and old, believe the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Winnipeggers is a serious matter, said Welch.

"This does raise the question 'What's next?,'" she said.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Mayor Brian Bowman said Thursday after learning about the poll results.

"One thing I hope everyone can agree on is it underscores the need for our community to continue on the journey toward reconciliation," Bowman said. A year after celebrating his election as Winnipeg's first Indigenous mayor, Macleans magazine in 2015 ran a front-page story about Winnipeg being Canada's most racist city.

Bowman responded by setting up an Indigenous advisory circle to work with community leaders and organizations. They produced Winnipeg's Indigenous Accord. It is described as a "living document to guide Winnipeggers' shared commitment to the journey of reconciliation." It was adopted by city council in March 2017. So far, 6,000 of 10,000 city employees have received diversity training that focuses on the legacy of residential schools that affected seven generations of Indigenous Winnipeggers, Bowman said.

"It's going to take many years to deal with that painful legacy and move us all forward." And Winnipeg is getting there, he said

"We've gone from being labelled by a magazine as a leader in racism to being recognized as one of Canada's leaders in reconciliation efforts," said Bowman who gives much of the credit to grassroots organizations.

There are signs that the divide is shrinking -- but the gap that remains is getting even more perilous, said Althea Guiboche, "the Bannock Lady" who has made it her mission to bring Winnipeggers together.

"There is a definite divide and we need to find a way to come together, to embrace all our differences, support each other's weaknesses and celebrate our strengths," said Guiboche, who is Métis.

"Things have to get worse before they'll get better and since 2014, there have been more non-Indigenous stepping up to be allies, speaking out and voicing their support," said Guiboche. "On the other hand, it seems like politics is wreaking havoc and poverty and the effects of poverty are taking over the streets."

She hopes young people, who are better educated about Indigenous issues, can help to bridge the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Winnipeggers.

"(They) are becoming more well-informed and more demonstrative in their opinion and they're more willing to take a stand in their convictions," said Guiboche.

"We want to build bridges with other Canadians and want Canadians to understand our history, how badly we were treated and about some of the incredible damage done," said the Aboriginal council's Johnston. "Once they get a better sense of that, there will be a lot of empathy," Johnston hopes.

"Human beings can relate to people if they put themselves in someone else's shoes, and ask 'would I be accepting of that?" Everyone stands to gain from closing the divide, said Johnston.

"We want to contribute to our country, our province and our city," he said from the building on Higgins Avenue where close to 200 adult learners graduate from high school and training programs twice a year.

"They're coming though our doors and they can be illiterate, and they're leaving with an education and a lot are getting work and to where they want to be," said Johnston. With Winnipeg's Indigenous population expected to grow by four per cent per year — to 114,000 by 2021 from 92,000 currently — investing in social programs and education to help them is a win-win for all Winnipeggers, he said.

"We think strategic investment by all government will produce, over time, the kind of outcomes we want," said Johnston. "We have economic reports that tell us if Indigenous persons were employed at same rate as other Canadians, the positive impact on our economy is in the billions (of dollars)."

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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