I’m not interested in discussing whether Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada. Racism is an issue across the continent. It’s a side effect of living under a settler colonial system that has a vested interest in securing land and resources, subjugating the indigenous population and controlling popular opinion.
Mayor Brian Bowman publicly acknowledged that there is a problem. That’s a small step in the right direction, but it will take more than a photo op to truly dismantle the systems of oppression that make up the foundation of our society.
Dave Wheeler and Brian Pallister are among those vocally defending their city against the allegations made in the now infamous Maclean’s article by Nancy MacDonald. These defences, however, are so centred on municipal pride and sheltered by privilege that they are, as Grand Chief Derek Nepinak wrote on Twitter, “willfully blind” to the problems faced by indigenous peoples. So perhaps it would be useful to examine what racism is and what forms it takes.
The widely influential civil rights and black power leaders Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton may have described it best in their seminal 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.
“Racism is both overt and covert. It takes two, closely related forms... We call these individual racism and institutional racism. The first consists of overt acts by individuals, which cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property... The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type.”
Though there are many examples of overt racism in Winnipeg as outlined in the Maclean’s article, it is the covert racism that is responsible for many of the social problems that plague our nations.
In order to accommodate construction of the Greater Winnipeg Water District, Shoal Lake 40 First Nation was relocated from its traditional territory on the western edge of Lake of the Woods to a so-called “man-made island.” The relocation left them isolated and without access to potable water.
On Tuesday, Jan. 27, authorities issued a boil-water advisory for Winnipeg that lasted for 48 hours, sending many Winnipeggers into a frenzy of buying bottled water.
But what if the advisory were to continue for weeks, months or even years? This is inconceivable, as the public backlash would force officials to come to a swift resolution.
Why then is it acceptable for the people of Shoal Lake 40 to live under far worse conditions for decades?
Perhaps because they have been intentionally pushed to the periphery, where their problems are out of sight and out of mind - at least to an urban settler population.
This is just one example of a structural system of discrimination that benefits settlers in cities like Winnipeg. Our water, electricity and the land we stand on all come at the expense of indigenous populations, who have been exploited so that we can take these things for granted.
Until we learn how to recognize the structural discrimination employed by colonial states such as Canada and begin to question our role as settlers, we will be left asking ourselves the same misguided questions while benefitting from the spoils of a racist system.
Greg Gallinger is a freelance photographer, vegan food enthusiast, a purveyor of half-witted commentary and a reluctant citizen of the global technocracy.