The City of Winnipeg had a bomb dropped on its reputation on Thursday when a national news magazine declared it the most racist city in Canada.
And instead of hiding from the accusation or opposing the slight, Winnipeg’s leaders stepped up and announced it would confront the city’s growing ethnic divide.
"We have a lot of work to do as a community," an emotional Mayor Brian Bowman said at a press conference. "A lot of work has been made in previous years and we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re not going to end racism tomorrow, but we’re sure as hell going to try."
The comments stem from a Maclean’s cover story released on Thursday, which claimed that Winnipeg was Canada’s most racist city.
The Maclean’s article searches for evidence to back up its thesis in the fallout from the death of Tina Fontaine and the attack on Rinelle Harper, two young aboriginal girls attacked in Winnipeg.
The 6,000-word feature article written by Nancy Macdonald begins there and touches on comments made by Winnipeg teacher Brad Badiuk, claiming aboriginals use their troubled past as a “crutch to suck more money out of Canadians.”
Then there were complaints of racial harassment from Polaris Music Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, while in town for a concert. And piles of first-hand accounts from politicians, doctors, young men and women and other residents.
And on top it all, there is the death of Brian Sinclair, a poor aboriginal man who died after sitting unnoticed in a city ER waiting room for more than a day. A recent inquest did not investigate why he was ignored by staff for 34 hours.
The Maclean’s article points to various figures. Ninety per cent of children in Manitoba foster care are aboriginal.
Last year, Winnipeg had the highest proportion of racist tweets among big cities where hate crime is most prevalent. Last year, nine out of 10 Manitoban reported hearing a negative comment about an indigenous person.
And so on.
It also points to some damning statistics. Winnipeg houses two of the country’s poorest postal codes – each in the North End where the population is predominantly aboriginal.
In the wake of the article, Mayor Bowman vowed to tackle the issue directly.
The response was lauded by Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells.
"The usual response to this sort of criticism is a kind of wounded sucky defensiveness. … So when Winnipeg’s mayor, Brian Bowman, called a news conference in response to Nancy Macdonald’s devastating cover story on widespread racism in the Manitoba capital, I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong," he wrote.
Elsewhere, the reaction has been just as intense. While some have scoffed at the idea that Winnipeg is any worse than other cities, others have taken the article as a challenge.
Wab Kinew, a University of Winnipeg professor and an expert on indigenous relations, took to Twitter to say the article was “bang on.”
"So people are complaining about the @MacleansMag article saying Winnipeg is arguably the most racist city in Canada?" he asked in a series of tweets.
"Remember when @MacleansMag ran the cover about Quebec being the most corrupt province in Canada and a lot of people got mad?
"Then they called the Charbonneau inquiry… Yeah…"
Derek Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the province could no longer pretend racism didn’t exist.
"I’m not here to pacify. I want people to continue to stand up and be strong," Nepinak said, via CBC News. “Let’s have this dialogue now because we’re strong enough as a society to overcome it together.”
""This is a national problem. But there’s a lot of work to be done in Winnipeg. We’re ready for that," added former Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi.
Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis stood with Bowman on Thursday. Clunis had previously said his force would take the lead on the issue of missing aboriginal women.
“As a police service it won’t just be about responding for calls to service, we are going to be shining a light on these issues and say we need to do more as a community, not just as a police service — but we will take the lead on it,” he said in December, via the Winnipeg Sun.
On Thursday, the police force rededicated itself to standing with the mayor as he move forward to address racism.
The debate raged online, some defending Winnipeg, others calling for the light to be shone brighter.