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Courage to pick at the open sore of racism

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It's only February, but for me, the most fascinating event at city hall in 2016 may have already happened -- Mayor Brian Bowman's messy, marathon news conference to announce his plan to combat racism.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/02/2016 (2499 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s only February, but for me, the most fascinating event at city hall in 2016 may have already happened — Mayor Brian Bowman’s messy, marathon news conference to announce his plan to combat racism.

It’s been nearly two weeks since hundreds joined the mayor in city hall’s atrium for what turned out to be nothing like the predictably stage-managed performances so common in politics. Early on, a tearful Somali woman and her husband shanghaied the proceedings, claiming child welfare had wrongly seized their children. Then, a First Nations chief had to be awkwardly squeezed onto the speaker’s list because he was initially overlooked. In the background, local indigenous leaders staged a discreet protest walkout, even though other First Nations people offered praise for the mayor and his initiatives. The police chief even had an unexpected but pivotal cameo.

It was one of the most interesting shemozzles I’ve ever covered, made even more so by several conversations with indigenous people in the days following. It revealed how easily good intentions can go wrong, how the same events can be taken many ways. It offered a glimpse into the minefield that awaits the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Pretty early on in the two-hour news conference, what was meant as a big step toward reconciliation went sideways. It took an uncharacteristically long time for anyone to acknowledge what’s become an opening mantra at most events — that we were on Treaty One territory. For whatever reason, it took a little improvised interjection from author and broadcaster Wab Kinew to get Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Jim Bear a minute at the podium, a protocol oversight that rubbed several First Nations leaders the wrong way.

But it was the unexpected interruption by the Somali mother and father that seemed to define the event. They cannot be identified by law because their children are in care, but their case is well-known and a source of frustration among Somali Winnipeggers, many of whom have had their offers of help rebuffed by the couple. Anyone familiar with child welfare knows there is certainly another side to the couple’s story, one social workers can never tell. But in the moment, the crying mother’s tale of being barred from seeing her children for six years, her repeated pleas to be allowed to finish her story, paralyzed the room. It seemed no amount of gentle cajoling by city staff and elders, no amount of hugs and promises, would quiet the parents.

Then, Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis waded into the fray. He used a one-armed bro-hug to firmly guide the father down the aisle and off to a nearby room. Few in the mostly white crowd could have so deftly diffused the situation. For me, and I imagine for the poker-faced politicians arrayed around the podium, it was a welcome conclusion to an uncomfortable situation that seemed destined not to end.

For several key indigenous leaders, however — including Northern Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson and University of Winnipeg instructor Leah Gazan — the moment was a bit of a deal-breaker. They found it offensive the police chief would stifle criticism, especially criticism of a child-welfare system that’s done so much damage to indigenous families, and especially because of the deep mistrust many indigenous people have for police. In my corner, it felt like Clunis saved the day. Folks in other corners had a far more complicated, visceral and nuanced reaction that prompted them to stage a polite boycott.

Others hung in there. Justice Murray Sinclair brought the event gently back on track, thanking the mayor for trying to tackle racism in the city. Many other Métis and First Nations officials remained at the event until the end, and Kinew, now running for the NDP in Fort Rouge, gave the closing drum song and praised Bowman warmly. It was a reminder indigenous people don’t have homogenous views on the right way forward, and the best intentions of non-indigenous people can sometimes alienate more than aid.

The event was also a reminder of the limits of governments that are hampered by money and politics. Bowman offered small solutions — an aboriginal accord, some diversity training, some blue plastic bracelets. Big solutions, like a call for the immediate settlement of land claims or equal education funding on reserves, weren’t on the list.

But, as muddled as it was, the mayor’s news conference was also a courageous step forward. It’s hard to imagine other politicians risking the kind of event that could polarize indigenous leaders as much, that could spark such a debate about the right and respectful way forward, that could be as complex and unpredictable as the issue itself.

Good intentions aren’t enough, but they’re a good start.

 

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @mawwelch

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