Last Thursday I walked home from work, through downtown Winnipeg, in despair.
I’d just read the article in Maclean’s that declared Winnipeg to be Canada’s most racist city. It shouldn’t really have come as a surprise.
The examples cited have been reported in local media and the horrific experiences of Tina Fontaine and Rinelle Harper have been top of mind since last summer and fall. But reading that massive article, with case after appalling case, was like being punched repeatedly in the gut. I felt ashamed of my city.
Like it or not, as a white person, in my bubble of relative privilege, I am part of the massive problem.
As I walked home, I saw a small group of Aboriginal youth on the sidewalk ahead of me. The boys were wearing low-slung pants and precariously perched ball caps. They were shouting and acting tough; one of the girls gave the finger to a passing taxi that honked at her for jaywalking. I felt nervous as I walked past them, but of course nothing happened.
I told myself I would have reacted the same way to a group of kids of any colour, behaving erratically like that. But, I also recognized the irony: at the exact time that I was feeling terrible about the way Aboriginal people are treated, I was guilty of the same racial stereotyping that is at the root of racism.
That evening I went to the first On The Same Page event of the year. On the Same Page is a program run by Winnipeg Public Library and supported by The Winnipeg Foundation. The idea is to get Manitobans reading, and talking about, the same book at the same time.
This year’s title is a collection called North End Love Songs, by Winnipeg poet Katherena Vermette. (The lovely poems earned Vermette the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2013.) North End Love Songs tackles Winnipeg’s racism issue head-on, and it does so with grace and courage. It also celebrates a neighbourhood, and its people, so often portrayed in the news as beyond hope.
Thursday night’s event featured four local indigenous writers, including Rosanna Deerchild, who appeared on the cover of the Maclean’s issue and was quoted in the article. Deerchild read poems that touched on the issue of missing and murdered women (something fiction author and journalist Trevor Greyeyes spoke about that evening as well), but focused on the strength and determination of indigenous women, especially mothers.
Althea Guiboche, known as The Bannock Lady for her grassroots work providing food for the homeless, also read a piece. She shared childhood memories of summers picking blueberries, and the strong Metis community in which she grew up, and how proud and thankful she was to have had that experience.
For me, the On The Same Page event could not have been more perfectly timed. As difficult as it was, I’m glad I read that Maclean’s article. I needed a punch to the gut on this issue – I think we all do. But I’m also thankful to have had another example, that same, difficult day, of the power of words and ideas to motivate change.
For more information about On the Same Page and upcoming events, visit: www.onthesamepage.ca