Winnipeg: My racist city

Andrew Evans
·Editor
Leslie and Carol Chartrand's talk about the shooting of their son on Tuesday Feb. 1, 2005, in Winnipeg.
Leslie and Carol Chartrand's talk about the shooting of their son on Tuesday Feb. 1, 2005, in Winnipeg.

"What's the difference between a native and a bucket of crap?"

I can't point to the first time I heard this joke, the punchline of which I won't include here. Nor can I recall every variation I heard; recounting all the junior-high "zingers" would result in a listicle of a length that would make BuzzFeed blush.

I can't say I never repeated them. I'd like to, but that would be dishonest. There's a certain kind of one-upsmanship with "edgy" jokes that teenage boys, particularly of the privileged group (read: white, upper-middle-class) that I come from, tend to engage in. I was no exception. It's not a uniquely Winnipeg phenomenon by any stretch; the target may just be different elsewhere.

You tell yourself you don't actually mean anything by the jokes, that the humour comes from the extremity of the offensiveness. That's what you try to believe. It's an easy trick to justify a poisonous behaviour that only serves to reinforce the barriers between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Caesar Harper, father of Rinelle Harper, weeps at a press conference in Winnipeg. (CP)
Caesar Harper, father of Rinelle Harper, weeps at a press conference in Winnipeg. (CP)

Every schoolyard high-five, every guilty laugh at the expense of Winnipeg's indigenous population was, and is, just one of several cogs in a system of racism and oppression that Maclean's identified as the worst in Canada. Every time we snickered at the latest, greatest quip about an ethnic group beset by poverty, violence, substance abuse and a society disinclined to address these problems, we were stripping them of their humanity and subconsciously justifying the fact our city is visibly stratified along ethnic lines.

Related:

Maclean's article calling Winnipeg 'most racist city' receives mixed reaction

Obviously, I'm writing this because I'm from Winnipeg, but let's be clear. My perspective as a white suburban kid is not the important one. Read that Maclean's piece, or listen to the family of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old whose body was pulled from the Red River over the summer. Listen to Rinelle Harper, the 16-year-old left for dead in the Assiniboine in November. Listen to Robert Sinclair, whose cousin Brian died after being ignored in an emergency room for 34 hours. Their perspective is so much more important.

All I can offer is the perspective of the passively complicit, the comfortable majority more concerned with the Jets' playoffs odds than the dying North End, a broken, crime-ridden neighbourhood former mayoral candidate Robert Falcon-Ouellette called "Canada's greatest shame."

I lived in Winnipeg for the first 23 years of my life, but like so many white Winnipeggers, I hardly set foot in the North End. It's easier that way. Selkirk Avenue, a bustling strip in the earlier part of the 20th century, is lined with empty commercial buildings and boarded up windows. You don't go there. You hear about it in a Weakerthans song, and you're told it's dying.

I didn't see it until I was 20, visiting a pavillion for the city's two-week celebration of diversity, Folklorama. I don't need to spell out the irony.

A few years later, I returned to the neighbourhood on assignment with the Winnipeg Free Press. I was covering my first murder.

I stopped a man who lived nearby on his way to work and asked if he'd heard anything the night before. He said no, asked me what happened. I told him there was a murder. He shrugged and said, "another one." I haven't been back to the North End in the five years since.

This geographical separation between the city's poor Aboriginal people and the wider population is just one part of the institutional problem that the Maclean's piece shines a light on. There's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude towards the growing rot at the city's core that could cripple it. Nancy Macdonald lays out the problem in Maclean's:

"In the next decade, one in three kids entering kindergarten in Manitoba will be Aboriginal, says Jamie Wilson, treaty commissioner for Manitoba. All those kids are going to enter the workforce, he adds. That cohort has the potential to shape the future of the province. To Wilson, the question is simple: does Manitoba want to create a skilled, educated workforce or an army of underemployed, undereducated indigenous youth dependent on government assistance and services?"

But if you grow up sheltered under the shade of the oak and elm that line idyllic neighbourhoods like River Heights — where streets are actually named Oak and Elm — you don't see those problems. You encounter the city's homeless, the majority of whom are native. You turn up your nose. You walk on the other side of the sidewalk.

Then you go back to school and laugh at the same jokes all over again.