Manitoba was founded by the Métis – some people seem to have forgotten that but the province was created as a direct aftermath of the first Riel rebellion. It was originally a small square around the Red River settlements. As the Northwest Territories were carved up into Saskatchewan and Alberta, Manitoba expanded north and, at one time, there was even talk of including what is now northern Ontario in the mix.
Located precisely in the middle of nowhere, Manitoba developed its own particular culture and politics. One of its first MPS, Louis Riel was elected several times but never permitted to take his seat in the House of Commons. Another Manitoba politician was Tim Buck, who, as a communist (he was party leader for decades), got 25% of the vote in the riding of Winnipeg North (losing to the socialist CCF candidate). Stanley Knowles, a bulwark of the CCF, was a long time representative from Winnipeg.
Winnipeg — which comprises 75% of the population of the province (the rest is scattered though a few modest towns and dozens of tiny, mostly aboriginal villages) — was forced by virtue of its relative isolation to look inward, developing strong ethnic neighbourhoods and its own particular cultural mix. Publishing and theater and music all thrived in the city where Christians and Jews and immigrants from across Europe and to a lesser extent other parts of the world formed prosperous and dynamic, if sometimes uneasy, relationships. The only people left out, it seems, were the original people of the province — the First Nations and Métis residents who had created the province and who now make up over ten percent of the city’s population.
When MacLean’s magazine recently called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada (and I suspect, the competition was fierce), this is what they were talking about. The racism is not impartial; it is specifically directed at Aboriginal people. The reasons are complicated and the answers will be even more so.
A good place to start is, undoubtedly, to admit there is a problem. The difficulty will lie in figuring out what that problem is. A hundred or more years of colonial oppression will not disappear because people wish it so. The dysfunction of many First Nations communities will not be solved in isolation or by simple solutions of ‘more money’ or ‘tougher laws.’
The Supreme Court has shone a pale light on a possible path: reconciliation achieved trough good faith bargaining on both sides where the Crown and the colonists act honorably and where Aboriginal people assert their own cultural strengths. But the first thing we have to do is start talking — respectfully.
But that’s ten minutes.