Changes in social change

A decade of activism in Winnipeg

From youth organizing to civil rights movements to the evolving social discourse, a lot has changed for people engaging in activism, community work and advocacy in Winnipeg during the past decade.

Chickadee Richard, an Annishinabe grandmother who has been “taking care of the people, seeing the wrongs, trying to correct them, speaking out to them” for the past 35 years, says she sees the relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian government at the edge of a honeymoon phase in an abusive relationship.

“We can start doing things and start healing, and then they threaten us, and we have to walk on eggshells, and we have to rally and campaign and lobby,” she says, emphasizing that governments still haven’t gotten the message that they need to consult Indigenous people about policies that impact them.

Still, she does see promise in Indigenous people recovering from trauma, reconnecting to “land and roles and responsibilities to land” and “looking at the systems that are oppressing our people and empowering our people to be able to speak to those wrongs.

“Indigenous women, environmental issues, all of these interconnected things. We’ve been so occupied by the trauma and all the policies that are put on us as Indigneous people. Speaking from an Annishinabe perspective, there’s so many things that are against us and make life difficult, but we overcome those difficulties.

“You know, I saw Idle No More, but I’ve never been idle. I’ve seen the creation of some of the First Nations schools here in Winnipeg and other things in the community,” Richard says.

Idle No More is a grassroots movement for Indigenous sovereignty and rights. Their goals include climate justice and combating social inequality among Canada’s First Nations.

Richard has been involved with many groups, networks and causes over the past 35 years, from Idle No More to water protection advocacy to raising awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigneous Women and Girls.

“There’s so many issues, and they all connect,” she says. “I think the foremost important thing for me is that I’m securing a future for my grandchildren, that when my grandchildren ask me ‘what did you do to protect the waters?’ I’ll say I did everything in my power.”   

Omar Kinnarath has been involved in anti-racism and anti-fascism organizing since the ’90s, when there were organized racist groups in the city, and anti-Iraq War work in the early 2000s, though he specifies that this has mostly been boots-on-the-ground work rather than leading organizing. He is a founder of Fascist Free Treaty 1, an anti-facist and anti-white supremacy group, and most recently has been working with the Mutual Aid Society’s Winnipeg branch, a group founded to help Winnipegers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s always been people in the Winnipeg activist community to look up to,” he says. “We’ve always had fantastic Indigenous organizers. Indigenous organizers seem to always be the most active, the most organized, the most inspirational.”

He says the biggest shift he’s noticed in the past 10 years is toward different types of activism. “It seems like there’s this academic activism, I like to call it talktivism, that people think is activism now. It’s always the person who gets the Uniter (30 favourite activist) award and is leading a workshop or something, and it’s never someone on the ground doing real work.

“There are also a lot of people who work anonymously, too. I know that from doing anti-racism work. A lot of people who I work with personally don’t want to be known,” he says. “And then there’s superstar activism for people who want a spotlight, want a platform for a couple of years, and then they disappear into some non-profit organization.”

Kinnarath says that Fascist Free Treaty 1 began because of the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting where six Muslims were killed.

“Basically, we decided to organize this because we knew that wave of alt-right or Canadian patriot neo-fascism was headed to Winnipeg at some point, so we quickly formed and got ready for that,” he says.

“We were ready to take that on, and when it started to appear in Winnipeg, we were more organized than them,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why it was comparatively easier for us to shut them out of the community. We had a presence before they showed up.”

“Winnipeg is a pretty active community when it comes to coming out for things, even with recent things like Wet’suwet’en and the climate strike. It’s kind of coming back up on the wave now. People are more active and more aware, especially younger people, and that makes me feel good.”

For Shauna MacKinnon, who works with Make Poverty History Manitoba and the Right to Housing Coalition, organizations combating poverty and homelessness, respectively, the shift from a New Democratic Party (NDP) to a Progressive Conservative (PC) provincial government has been the biggest of the last decade.

“Back in 2010, when we were doing this work, it was completely different, because we were at least able to feel like we were making little steps forward. Now, we’re not making steps forward. We’re just trying to plug the holes,” she says.

“When we had an NDP government in power, they were far from perfect, and they certainly didn’t do all of the things that we needed them to do, but we could see some slow, incremental changes happening in a positive way, and it was possible to meet with people and have conversations, and they were sort of sympathetic to the issues we were there with.”

She says the current government has forced many activists for provincial policy to rethink their strategies as communication channels have dried up, and, she says, “we saw with the climate march last fall, they look out the window, and they see all these people on the streets, and they just don't care. They don’t respond to any kind of mass resistance. They’re very focused on their agenda.

“But on a positive note,” she says, “I’ve been at this stuff for a long time, longer than 10 years, and right now is when I’m starting to see a lot of younger folks getting involved, getting creative, getting angry and starting to figure out how we resist and how we challenge.

“Somehow, they’re remaining positive in a context where there are not a lot of positive things happening, so as someone who’s been doing this for a long time, that’s nice to see. They’re gaining skills because they have to.”

Published in Volume 74, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 2, 2020)

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