Middle of Nowhere

Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, we aren’t any better

Several years ago, travelling in Europe, I was often asked where I came from. “Winnipeg,” I would say, and then, usually after a vaguely questioning look, “It’s right in the middle of Canada, just north of the U.S. border.”

My unspoken persona to locals was that of the not-quite-American. I was from some anonymous town site on the unspeakably vast Canadian plain.

Despite our characteristic self-deprecation, Winnipeggers love announcing to each other and the world that our city is great. And Canadians more broadly tend to be the same way about our country.

The looks of interest I got were my earliest clues that Winnipeg could be a “vaguely exotic and totally obscure” place, as Vogue put it in its recent profile of the city. It was affirming in a way, and I felt good coming from the Heart Of The Continent, a city that was secretly awesome if you were lucky enough to be in the know.

Vogue’s glowing endorsement of Winnipeg was only the latest in series of accolades from major publications that, without fail, have sent many of us into frenzies of self-reaffirmations and I-told-you-sos.

Back in Winnipeg, years later, I watched with complacency, then concern, then shock and horror as an unapologetic white supremacist and habitual liar became one of the most powerful people in the world.

By the time it was clear that Donald Trump would be elected president, #MeanwhileinCanada was trending on Twitter. 

It’s a hashtag often associated with U.S. police violence and Black Lives Matter protests, and it usually advances a narrative of Canada as a welcoming, liberal paradise, with some variation of Justin Trudeau waving a rainbow flag.

But both the #MeanwhileinCanada trend and our city’s habitual hoopla around public affirmation reveal a sort of superiority complex, even if subtle and understated.

To be sure, there is much to be proud of. Winnipeg’s Exchange District is indeed neat, and Canada’s relative tolerance of non-dominant skin colours and sexualities shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But it’s also worth adding a caveat to what can sometimes amount to hyperbolic praise.

As Bartley Kives  pointed out on Twitter, Vogue’s claim that the Exchange District is “North America’s largest and best preserved collection of heritage buildings,” is suspect at best.

And on a federal scale, it’s worth noting that the morning after the election, Prime Minister Trudeau offered unconditional congratulations to Trump, while Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch sent a gloating email to her supporters anticipating great days ahead.

The white supremacy that brought Trump to the White House is as alive and well in Ottawa, where the federal Liberals have consistently ignored the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it is in Biggar, Sask., where Colten Boushie was murdered.

And while the Obama administration foiled plans for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Trump and Trudeau are aligned in their desire to get it built.

So yes, let’s appreciate where we come from. Let’s build connections with the land and communities around us. But let’s also remember that the line between local living and insular xenophobia is thin.

Let’s remember that notions of place-based superiority were precisely what led U.S. voters to begin closing their borders.

Tim Runtz is the comments editor for The Uniter. His regular column, Middle of Nowhere, explores the culture and politics of places around Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 71, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 17, 2016)

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