At the risk of sounding glib, you'd have to walk around Winnipeg with your eyes covered in hockey tape and your ears filled with molasses not to notice this city's racism problem.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/1/2015 (2716 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

At the risk of sounding glib, you'd have to walk around Winnipeg with your eyes covered in hockey tape and your ears filled with molasses not to notice this city's racism problem.

Winnipeg is Canada's most indigenous city, both in terms of the sheer number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit residents (about 80,000) and the proportion of the population that is indigenous (about one in nine).

This should be nothing but a source of pride. Unfortunately, the quality-of-life gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Winnipeggers is both immense and unconscionable, no matter what metric you choose to examine.

Indigenous residents are far more likely to be wards of the state during childhood, victims of violence in adulthood, live in inadequate housing, fail to graduate high school, wind up incarcerated, suffer from chronic mental- and physical-health ailments and make less money, compared with non-indigenous Winnipeggers.

 

This can be described as systemic racism. But there's also so much overt racism directed toward indigenous Winnipeggers, it's fair to say this ethnic group suffers uniquely from discrimination.

The vast majority of Winnipeggers know this and understand this. And in 2014, as a community, we were galvanized by a series of events that included the slaying of teenager Tina Fontaine, the drowning death of "homeless hero" Faron Hall, the inquest into the hospital-waiting-room death of Brian Sinclair and the attempted slaying of teenager Rinelle Harper.

As a result, there was and remains a palpable sense Winnipeggers of all backgrounds are more aware than ever about our ethnic chasm, if not actively engaged in bridging that divide.

That's why the publication of a Maclean's story declaring Winnipeg the most racist of Canadian cities wasn't met with anger or denial by Mayor Brian Bowman, the city's first indigenous mayor.

"Is there racism in Winnipeg? Yes," said Bowman, who gathered several dozen city councillors, city directors, educators, indigenous leaders and other activists at his office Thursday in an attempt to show Winnipeg is serious about addressing its ethnic divisions.

"You can't run away from facts," said the mayor, who was moved to tears when he said he hopes his sons will be as proud of his Métis heritage as they will be of his wife's Ukrainian roots.

Bowman's response to the Maclean's story seemed to surprise the magazine's staff, who were attempting to be provocative with a cover story proclaiming Winnipeg as Canada's most racist.

When Maclean's dubbed Quebec the most corrupt province, the entire island of Montreal practically revolved in protest. But here was Winnipeg's mayor, essentially saying: Yeah, well, tell us something we don't know.

The thorough story, written by former Winnipegger Nancy Macdonald, accurately depicts the scale of systemic and overt racism in Winnipeg. (I was interviewed for the piece and I'm quoted in it.)

Only some of the story's superlatives can be called into question: One could argue Vancouver is just as racist against its Asian residents, for example. How Winnipeg gets to be worse than any other city is debatable.

The fact indigenous Winnipeggers live shorter lives and are subject to more violence than other Winnipeggers is not, however, up for debate. The presence of a unique and unmistakable race-relations problem in Winnipeg can only be disputed by a citizen in denial.

The challenge is what this city and this mayor are going to do about a situation with settlement-era roots. Mayor Bowman and police Chief Devon Clunis cannot wave a post-colonial wand and heal a city.

In Alberta or Ontario, the Maclean's story may read like a shocker. But its effect was relatively muted in Winnipeg by mere virtue of it being published months after Fontaine's death, the release of the Sinclair inquest report and the attack on Harper, all of which led Winnipeg's great divide to become a top-of-mind headline grabber.

There is something slightly patronizing about a Toronto publication presuming to tell Winnipeg something about itself. There's also something cringe-inducing about a mayor calling a news conference to address a national publication covering many of the same issues Winnipeg media have already covered.

Nonetheless, Maclean's has done Winnipeg a service by drawing attention to a socio-economic situation of national significance.

Winnipeg stories are no longer told in great detail on a national level. One could argue the magazine also ought to draw national attention to the city's real estate and construction scandals, whose severity exceeds those in Toronto and approaches the ones in Montreal.

But there is no hierarchy of municipal embarrassments. And Winnipeg need not be embarrassed.

As long as residents of this city continue to get to know each other -- openly, in good faith and in the spirit of reconciliation -- the racism we speak of now will seem quaint and exotic within a generation.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca