Winnipeg mayor faces up to a dark reality

Brian Bowman admits his city has a problem with racism

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CALGARY, AB, Jan 23, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Step 1 in the 12-step program is admitting you have a problem.

That’s why Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman should be congratulated for his extraordinary news conference called on an hour’s notice Thursday. He admitted – albeit in the face of overwhelming evidence – that his prairie city has a problem with racism. Not, he said, his city’s problem alone, but certainly a big one for that community of 633,000.

Racism “ugliest in Winnipeg”

Winnipeg was centred out in a devastating cover story by Macleans magazine this week on the issue of racism in Canada. Macleans declared on its cover, “Canada has a bigger race problem than America. And it’s ugliest in Winnipeg.”

The article supported the shocking assertion with numerous anecdotes, including a comment from Aboriginal writer Rosanna Deerchild who said she is frequently called a “stupid squaw”.

It also comes on the heels of two tragic stories: the first on the death of 15-year-old Aboriginal girl Tina Fontaine in the summer of 2014 and then the case of Rinelle Harper, the aboriginal teen who was attacked, viciously assaulted, beaten and thrown in the Assiniboine River. Her attackers left her for dead.

Brian Bowman
“Instead of shrinking from the challenge, we need to rise up and we need to do better as a community”

As someone who worked in Winnipeg early in his journalism career, and returns to visit from time to time, I found these stories heartbreaking. But getting them out in the open may also be a painful and necessary first step in finding meaningful solutions.

For me, the Macleans article was also rich in irony because it reminded me of the treatment I received after writing in November that Winnipeg’s crime-infested core reminds some people of Detroit, that crumbling symbol of failed American race relations. That November column triggered furious denials from city boosters, including a radio talk show host who accused me of being “fact-challenged”. When I agreed to be on his program, I brought with me a stack of crime statistics and other data, but the host never gave me a chance to cite the evidence – this was all about protecting the home team.

Denial is a predictable and in some ways an endearing response. It’s the sort of thing you might expect from Tourism Winnipeg. But, as the smart and articulate Bowman knows, sometimes defending the indefensible only helps mask the underlying issues.

Winnipeg has a problem, but it is not alone. Other Canadian cities also struggle with racism, especially in their views towards Aboriginal people. It is a problem that Canadians have to get serious about addressing, not just to right long-standing injustices, but also because such cancerous attitudes threaten to drag our entire society down.

Consider my home town of Calgary, for example, a city basking in the glow of its image as a progressive and open cultural hotbed. A conversation with our rock star mayor, Naheed Nenshi, dispelled any delusion I might have had about its past. He grew up as a person of colour and a Muslim in the city’s northeast. And he endured years of verbal abuse as a school kid. No hard feelings, but that’s the way it was.

How, I wonder, did Calgary move from what it was then to the progressive city it is today? And how can we be assured that the trend will stay positive? What about the rest of the country? Is it possible that it’s not the Muslims or Jews, blacks or Asians of Canada who need to be worried, but rather descendants of the people who were here when Europeans arrived? These and other troubling questions are awaiting a national dialogue.

Winnipeg mayor should be commended

Here’s what I really liked about what Bowman had to say at his news conference. He said, “Instead of shrinking from the challenge, we need to rise up and we need to do better as a community.” He was talking about Winnipeg, but he could have been talking about the entire country.

Bowman wants to turn his tarnished city into a national leader in eradicating racism. Canada needs to watch him closely, and learn.

Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief and National Affairs columnist for Troy Media.

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