As much of our city knows, Maclean’s recently released an article titled, “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s Racism Problem is at its Worst.” Nancy Macdonald - the author of the article - triggered strong reactions across the city, forcing many Winnipeggers to look at ourselves in the mirror. We cannot pretend that racism doesn’t exist in Winnipeg.
I have personally called people out on their racism, but they usually don’t get it. Maybe people just need some context so that they can empathize better?
In the 1800s, the Canadian government introduced a compulsory residential boarding school system. At least 150,000 First Nations children experienced the Canadian residential school system, where they were taken away from their families, made to give up everything about their culture and were often emotionally, physically and sexually abused.
This was not meant to gift the Aboriginal population with health care, education, cultural integration and a better future. It was not altruism. The intention was to assimilate the Aboriginal population into the white nation by forcibly dismantling their entire culture and removing their treaty rights. We know this because it was clearly stated in the Gradual Civilization Act of 1867.
The Canadian Government apologized for its actions in 2008.
Personal accounts of the abuses experienced by children in the residential school system are shocking and heartbreaking to read. Until 1960, Aboriginal individuals were not even given the right to vote without having to give up their treaty rights or Indian Status. These dehumanizing actions fed - and continue to feed - into some people’s justifications for bigotry: They pretend that not all of us are really people and then it becomes easier to justify all sorts of violent, criminal or morally reprehensible acts.
I am not a historian. I learned this history in grade school and high school because it was part of the Canada-wide curriculum. This means that some Winnipeggers either fell asleep in class, or are just plain old bigoted. The last residential school was closed in 1996, so these things happened within living memory. As a result of what happened, the Aboriginal population is experiencing historical and cultural trauma, trauma which takes more than a few generations to recover from. Yet, many still keep judging Aboriginal people.
Even though the Aboriginal population in Canada is statistically more likely to experience poverty, mental health issues and crime, many people would rather keep judging than understand the past and learn from it.
But if you want to learn and if you want to help bring about change, you are not alone. In a press conference the same day that the Maclean’s article was released, Mayor Brian Bowman gave an emotional speech. He said that “Winnipeg has a responsibility right now to turn this ship around and change the way we all relate.” The mayor has created a website to help combat racism: www.1winnipeg.ca. Take a look and see if you can help!
Carol Lindsey is a Public Relations student at the University of Winnipeg.