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This article was published 10/10/2017 (710 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On Friday night, the stars of a documentary on how a Winnipeg area once called a "slum" was transformed into a good place to live gathered for its première, oblivious to a provincial government consultant's report suggesting that privatization might be the solution to public housing problems.
"That's a bad idea," said one of the people featured in A Good Place to Live: Transforming Public Housing in Lord Selkirk Park.
"Private companies are interested in making a profit," said Jim Silver, chairman of the department of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Manitoba Research Alliance, which paid for the film.
"What we've done in Lord Selkirk Park is invest in things that weren't oriented towards making a profit but specifically tailored to the community," he said Friday before 200 community members gathered outdoors for a barbecue and to watch the 20-minute film for the first time under the stars.
Work on the documentary began long before Manitoba had a Progressive Conservative government eyeing major public spending cuts and privatizing services, Silver said.
"We started on this when the former NDP government was still in office," he said. "We made the film because we feel that this is quite a story. All across North America, public housing projects have been bulldozed. In 2005, we took a different approach: turn things around by listening to what the people want to do and encourage the provincial government to invest. It worked. It's still a low-income place but it's become a much, much healthier, safer place than when we started. If it can work in Lord Selkirk Park, it can work anywhere."
The day the first family moved into Lord Selkirk Park on Dec. 14, 1967 was heralded in a Winnipeg Tribune story with the headline Shining housing project rises from a city slum.
Many "shining" public housing projects built in the '50s and '60s in Canada and the U.S. began deteriorating in the '80s and '90s and governments bulldozed many of them. In 2005, Lord Selkirk Park was still standing — but barely, Silver said in the film.
"Some people were saying 'This place is a mess. We ought to bulldoze it.'"
The public housing project was overrun with gangs, crime and vandalism. Windows were boarded up and broken beer bottles littered the area.
"You didn't really want to be outside," longtime resident Rochelle Ross says in the film. "You didn't want to get to know your neighbour. You didn't want to walk around."
"It's indescribable," recalls Carolyn Young, director of the Manidoo Go-Miini Gonaan child care centre at the park. "The houses looked terrible — they were boarded up. I've seen Third World countries that lived better than they did here in the '90s and it wasn't an existence for a baby to live in, that's for sure."
"They referred to Lord Selkirk Park as the place of last resort to live: a war zone," Janice Goodman with the North End Renewal Corp. says in the 20-minute doc by Winnipeg filmmaker Ian Mauro. "It was kind of the last place they wanted to be, but that's where they got placed."
Instead of bulldozing Lord Selkirk Park, the film shows how it received intensive care and nurturing and grew into a place that thrives today as a hub of education and hope for the community.
Many of its residents were offered skills training and jobs during the renovations. A family resource centre set up in one of the units held events such as community barbecues that brought the residents together. Calls from single moms who wanted to get off social assistance and get their Grade 12 led to the formation of an adult education centre and a literacy program.
"Education is the key to having a chance to better themselves and to be positive role models for their children," Linda Smith, an instructor with the literacy program, says in the film.
Until three years ago, 100 per cent of the literacy program participants were Indigenous. Now, she's seeing more students for whom English is a second language, as more newcomers to Canada make Lord Selkirk Park home.
"Nobody cares about your colour, your background, where you come from," says resident Amina Kasfa, a refugee who sees "the Park" as a place that's raising a generation not hung up on race or nationality.
"I'm from Uganda, the next door is Aboriginal. The other door is someone from Rwanda. The children play together. They don't see that they're different. I like it. I love it. I wish everybody could get the same opportunity," Kasfa says.
Her children attend the day care, Manidoo Go-Miini Gonaan, where Healthy Child Manitoba introduced the Abecedarian Approach in 2012. The U.S.-based state-of-the-art early childhood education program has lower child-to-adult ratios, with learning built into the caregiving all day, every day — even a diaper change is an opportunity. That focus on education — from babies in diapers to seniors learning to read, to moms earning their high school diplomas — has kept Lord Selkirk Park on a positive trajectory, longtime residents say.
The public housing project is saving taxpayers money, too, said Silver, who believes that public housing is worth investing in when governments listen to and work with residents.
"Our education initiative has made everyone better off with fewer people going to prison and more people employed," he added. Silver thinks privatizing public housing would be "a disaster."
Even hiring private management firms to run public housing would be a bad idea and a missed opportunity, he said.
"That company is just going to collect the rent. There's no incentive to make social investments to make these good places to live."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.