I’m the Wandering Scott, and I’m from Winnipeg, the most racist city in Canada according to Maclean’s (1). Winnipeg, we need to talk.
Problems with treating racism like it’s a competition aside, I found that the article did have a lot of truth to it in terms of problems that do plague Winnipeg. I was surprised, then, by the visceral and hostile response of many Winnipegers, including the radio host linked below (2).
I have lived in Winnipeg for the past 7-8 years (has it really been that long?), and in that time I have witnessed racially motivated hate and micro aggressions on a consistent basis. I have witnessed the disadvantage that many people face and the advantage that others enjoy. I know that I’m not alone in this either. As far as I know, it’s a well-known and documented truth that Winnipeg has always struggled with racism. Why then, when the article from Maclean’s came out, did so many Winnipeggers react the way they did and say that it couldn’t possibly be true? Where did that response come from?
In order to try and understand this, I took a step back. I think a key to understanding this topic is in clearly identifying the terms (something that is so often overlooked when talking about topics such as this). Let’s begin with prejudice. Prejudice is quite simply the act of making a judgment before all of the requisite facts are known. Bigotry is basically prejudice, but prejudice that cannot be challenged with facts. A bigot has pre-conceived notions about other people based on features such as race, sexuality, gender, etc etc etc, that they are unwilling to change even when their perspectives are clearly shown to be flawed or untrue. In addition, a bigot will usually hate those that they are bigoted against, or take actions against them.
Racism is having prejudices against, or treating somebody differently, based on what you perceive to be their race to be. (I say perceive for 2 reasons. First, treatment differs based on what race the racist thinks you belong to, not what race you identify with. Race and ethnicity are far more than the physical features the racist sees. Second, race is a loosely identified term to begin with. Genetically, all humans are quite similar to begin with, and are impossible to separate neatly into groups. Social separations are by their very nature not distinct. Hence, treatment or prejudice varies on the perception of the racist rather than truth. But I digress.)
So racism. There are two major types of racism, and I think this is where a lot of people get confused. You can have personal racism, or you can have systematic racism (well you generally have both but you get my point). Personal racism is a person who is a racial bigot. They are intolerant of others based on their race. Systematic racism, however, is something else entirely. Systematic racism is a system that creates advantage or disadvantage based upon racial prejudice. It can be found in company policies, social norms, government policies, and many other places. It is the insidious hostile undertones that make people feel unwelcome, unwanted, or worthless. Ranging from what we, as a community, consider to be acceptable humor, to top level discriminatory policies by the Government of Canada, systematic racism is everywhere and it is damaging.
So, why did some Winnipeggers react the way they did to the Macleans article? Why did Wheeler denounce the article, and stand firm that Winnipeg wasn’t a racist city? It’ s because they read ‘racist city’ to mean ‘filled with racist bigots’, when instead the article was saying that Winnipeg has a huge, gigantic systematic racism problem.
Among the ‘flaws’ that Wheeler pointed out was the fact that aboriginal on aboriginal violence can’t be a racism problem. This is true from a personal racism definition. However, let’s look at it from the systematic racism perspective, shall we?
Manitoba is a province that was founded in violence. Almost immediately after its creation, treaties were broken, lands were taken, uprisings flared. No words can ever express the true damage wrought by the horrors of the residential schools. From the beginning of this land as a province of Canada to modern times, the Metis and First Nations have encountered hardships and injustices. Our government has not been kind nor fair. No other province has a history quite as violent and broken as Manitoba.
These injustices and hardships are not just historical. Systematic racism still rears its ugly head in both discussion and outcomes. In modern Winnipeg, many will talk about the North Side as the dangerous part of the city. The part of the city that you don’t go to alone or at night. Although never said directly, it is always implied that it is this way because it is the Aboriginal part of the city. Far more importantly than that (and something that a lot of people like to overlook when trying to figure out why violence is so much higher there), it is also the part of the city with the least jobs, the worst housing, and even the worst infrastructure. This part of the city has been left to suffer, and its inhabitants have been put at a disadvantage. This is systematic racism. This is why Winnipeg has a racism problem. Aboriginal on aboriginal violence is not due to racism if you only consider racism from the narrow view that racism is actions personally taken by white bigots. It most definitely is due to racism, however, if you look at the disadvantage that led to the higher crime rates caused by the systematic racism to begin with.
To finish off this reflection, I think it’s important that we talk about the next steps. The first step is to admit that yes, Winnipeg does have a racism problem. Hopefully this article has made that clear to everybody who was doubting it or decrying it. Next, as a community, Winnipeg MUST demand work towards change. We, as a people, must commit ourselves to ridding our city of this systematic racism. We must try to eliminate the inherent disadvantage that many Winnipeggers face. If we refuse to do this, if we refuse to try and change our system… well, then Winnipeg might as well be filled with racist bigots, because refusing to change the system would make us just as bad.