Judy Wasylycia-Leis is well-known in many of Winnipeg’s social circles. It’s no surprise - the former Member of Parliament for Winnipeg North, NDP MLA, and Minister of Culture, Heritage and Recreation has spent close to three decades working in public office.
In that time she’s made a wealth of connections and even caught the eye of some of Manitoba’s artists. Mention the name “Rik Leaf” to Wasylycia-Leis and she lights up.
“He’s been a real inspiration to me!” she exclaims and describes how she first met the local musician while walking her dog on Atlantic Ave. during the 2006 federal election campaign.
“Along comes this guy with an envelope and he wants to talk,” she recalls. “He starts talking about the path of music as a tool of empowering communities and the need to integrate to political decision making and policy development,” Wasylycia-Leis says.
Out of that chance meeting, the North End Arts Collective was born. It’s a loose, non-structure community group that gathers to socialize with and be entertained by their neighbours.
Leaf was the first to perform at the series of house concert meetings in the Wasylycia-Leis home.
“I suddenly found myself in a room with the very people I dreamed about meeting but didn’t know where or how to find,” Leaf says. “And they were all there because she knew we all needed each other.”
Leaf was inspired to write and record a poetry slam in support of Wasylycia-Leis’s 2010 mayoral campaign, titled “Vote for a Vision.”
”Buried deep in the heart of it all,
Her story is a history,
Of bringing the many together,
So that all the streams can flow with the force of a river.”
“Those lines sum up Judy’s role in the North End Artist Collective,” Leaf says. “She really connected all the different threads: writers, painters, poets, musicians; also the different communities, walks of life, and cultures.”
Since that first meeting, Leaf relocated to the West Coast, but he is looking forward to a homecoming.
“I’m flying to Winnipeg for the celebration when she wins!” he says from Yellowknife where he is leading slam poetry workshops for students and teachers.
Wasylycia-Leis says Leaf inspires her in kind to use arts in her approach to politics.
“That’s so Rik - finding some new opportunity that doesn’t give fame and fortune, but builds community,” Wasylycia-Leis says. “It really shows the power of music and integration of our rich heritage, especially our Indigenous art forms.”
Wasylycia-Leis says arts and culture is the “fourth pillar” in her plan for Winnipeg along with economic, social, and environmental dimensions.
She plans to support infrastructure projects including bus rapid transit pending a post-election analysis that includes cultural considerations.
“Too often arts and culture are an afterthought when we make decisions around building bridges, planning spaces and neighbourhood development,” she says, “when they should be an integral part. It creates a sense of identity which builds communities and healthy, safe neighbourhoods.”
Wasylycia-Leis would also like to extend this way of thinking beyond transit.
“We need a cultural impact lens on all of our policies,” she says.
The civic election is Oct. 22, 2014. You can learn more about Judy Wasylycia-Leis at judyformayor.ca.
Published in Volume 69, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 8, 2014)