Winnipeg’s Racism

It’s been a little over two weeks since Maclean’s magazine gave Winnipeg, my home for the last six and a half years, the title of Canada’s most racist city. What I want to talk about in this post is how the reaction to another major story in the same time period – Winnipeg’s first ever city-wide boil water advisory – has shifted some of my own understanding of what this title as Canada’s most racist city means.

When it comes to Winnipeg’s racism, I have tended to understand it in systemic rather than at the legislative or personal terms. And it is true that (unless I am grossly ignorant) we don’t have KKK equivalent vigil-ante groups carrying out acts of violence against aboriginal persons and property or laws that are aimed at restricting people based on their ethnicity. We do have a colonial heritage and setting that, in subtle and non-subtle ways, tends to empower white people and disenfranchise aboriginal peoples, influencing everything from police actions to informal but very real segregation in the city. In this sense detractors of the Maclean’s story who point out that Rinelle Harper was assaulted by two aboriginal men are missing the point: this story is one powerful example of a city valuing aboriginal lives less than other lives. This is verified by statistics, but can only really be understood through telling stories.

In any case, that is where I was coming from when I first read the Maclean’s story. And then Winnipeggers got notice, Tuesday evening, that we were under a boil water advisory. On the first news story I read about the advisory, the first comment was “a couple of dead sq**** in the water?” (censorship added). The comment was two minutes old. I immediately flagged it, and it was taken down, as I am sure was also the case with many other racist comments in the ensuing minutes and hours. I didn’t think too much of it. (In general I am only able to retain my sanity if I put little stock in news story comments.) Coming so quickly after Winnipeg had been named Canada’s most racist city, this comment troubled me more than other comments along such lines have, but it didn’t rock me.

On Friday, I was rocked. One of the stories that news outlets picked up after the boil water advisory is the deplorable conditions on many aboriginal reserves in Manitoba, including a lack of drinking water. On Friday morning, during my work shift at Starbucks, the Winnipeg Metro had a front page story about demonstrators from the Shoal Lake reserve, who have been under a boil water advisory for 17 years, and whose lake supplies Winnipeg with all of its drinking water. The Metro was on the counter close to the bar where I was making drinks. One businesswoman saw the front cover and immediately began speaking to a friend about how wrong all of this was. At first, I assumed she was talking about the wrongness of people living without access to clean drinking water for 17 years. Then I realized that she was speaking about her disgust with the protest itself. “How dare they come over here and complain about their problems to us. Why do they think that it is our responsibility to fix all of their issues?”

She had her facts wrong and is, undoubtedly, woefully ignorant of the systemic racism and colonial inheritance that has created situations like these. The reason Shoal Lake Reserve has problems with water infrastructure is because Winnipeg flooded Shoal Lake in order to access its water supply. To build a water treatment facility, Shoal Lake needs a year round access road: a responsibility of the provincial government that we share with Shoal Lake residents. Aboriginal people live on remote reserves, because that is where we settlers made them go after we had taken their land for ourselves. I could go on. As I said, she had facts wrong and Winnipeggers do bear responsibility for the lack of drinking water at Shoal Lake.

This all fits into the sort of “systemic” analysis I mentioned before. But it was not this women’s ignorance and factual errors that horrified me, but the waves of anger that were coming off of her. Her voice and hands trembled as she spoke and she eventually broke off mid-sentence, her anger making her speechless.

How is it that when a person hears of other people lacking a basic human service her first reaction is not to something like compassion? Even if it were absolutely unrelated to Winnipeggers, how does someone else sharing their own unacceptable living conditions inspire such anger? The only answer I can come up with is: personal racist hatred. I’ve shared this story with a few others and no one has been surprised. Instead I heard from others their own stories of encountering personal racist hatred. This is par for the course in Winnipeg.

Obviously I don’t have all the answers to this. Such answers will be much better provided by those who have encountered, noticed, experienced, and processed such personal racism for longer than the past two weeks. For what it’s worth, however, I do observe that many suggestions for helping Winnipeg to become less racist involve education. This is good; education is essential for exposing the irrationality of racism and the extent of Canada’s colonialism. At the same time, I fear that such education may attend only to Winnipeg’s systemic racism and not the very personal racism of much of its populace. Personal racism needs a personal solution: personal encounters and relationships. I suspect that more settlers in Winnipeg have a good understanding of colonialism than have more than one aboriginal friend (Winnipeg is over 11 percent aboriginal). Besides better city planning (are we really building still more suburbs?) I’m not sure that this can be legislated. However, it does represent an ongoing opportunity for the church. If the church can be in spaces and places that break down the barriers of racism through personal relationships and connections, then it will not only rid its own members of deeply harboured racisms, but will stand as a sign of the irrationality of racist hatred. Each relationship shows the tragic absurdity of reacting with anger directed at people without water when hearing that they do not have water.

4 thoughts on “Winnipeg’s Racism

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong: you seem to be separating systemic racism from legislative (explicit) racism. I’m not sure a rigorous distinction could be maintained between legislative and systemic racism. For example, the movie Selma shows that the official policy of the U.S. was that everyone could vote, but that there were ridiculous obstacles which prevented Black people from voting, making it clear that the “official” or “explicit” policies cannot always be taken at face value.

    “In 2010-11, Canada’s overall incarceration rate was 140 per 100,000 adults. The incarceration rate for Aboriginal adults in Canada is estimated to be 10 times higher than the incarceration rate of non-Aboriginal adults.” Would you say that this imbalance points towards systemic racism but the legislation is not inherently, or explicitly, racist? One could, and I think one should argue, that it is the effects of the laws that should be taken into primary consideration.


  2. Thanks for the comment Joel. There are important things to clarify and nuance here. I’m not sure that I am qualified to do this (i.e., point out where and how and why systemic and legislative racism are different and the same), but I can at least say where my thinking was at when I wrote this piece.

    There are absolutely areas of overlap and similarity between what I name as legislative, systemic, and personal racism. Depending on the context, this overlap might be substantial. So, if when you say that you don’t think a rigorous distinction could be maintained, you mean clear-cut or absolute, then I entirely agree.

    However, to my thinking there is significant difference between systems and legislation. Legislation is a part of a system, but it is not always the most significant part and may even be in significant odds with the bulk of the systemic force. The over-representation of aboriginal people in the prison system (and the fact that once in the prison system they are, statistical, given longer and harsher punishment) is undoubtedly a case of systemic violence. This systemic problem includes a colonial history, poverty, trauma, microaggressions coming from teachers, neighbours, judges, juries, and prison guards, as well as legislation. And, even the legislation that is a part of this systemic racism is not racist in an explicitly discriminatory way (though, please, show me to be wrong here if I’m missing something). If Canadian legal legislation is racist then it is through its absences (e.g., *not* having a deputy commissioner for aboriginal corrections, *not* pursuing more programming through community based healing lodges, *not* employing affirmative action effectively enough so as to employ more correctional services and community development personnel) and not through what is present in them (as with, say, the fugitive slave act or the Chinese head tax or even new voter ID laws in the southern United States). I’m not arguing that one is better than the other, but it is an important difference. One of the ways that it is different is that when a law might be described through its absences it tends to be because that law does *not* address a systemic problem. In this case, the problem starts with something other than laws, but some think that the best way to solve these problems is for the law to address them in ceasing to strive for neutrality.

    One example of this difference is that some of the fiercest advocates that I know of personally for women’s rights in countries under Sharia law are also strongly against proactive laws for gender equality in the west. I also observed (though not to nearly the same extent as the women in our group) the vast differences between our society’s sexism and the sexism of Iran (whose laws explicitly and intentionally discriminate) when I was there last Spring.


  3. I think we are dancing around agency: are the laws the cause of racism or is it legislation, or is it both? I think those are important questions to ask. If we can locate agency, and our control of it, then we can act accordingly.

    But what I’m after is something a little different. I recall an interview with a gender studies professor from Concordia on cbc a few months ago. The interviewer asked: why do women feel the need to shave? Is it the result of the porn industry or because men are trying to control women’s bodies?” The prof: “It’s tough to locate a definite cause for these kinds of phenomenon. But there is the age old journalistic trick: who benefits? where does the money go? The beauty industry is by far the greatest sector that stands to profit, and does profit.”

    It’s this sort of distinction that I’m getting at. Sociologists do make the kinds of distinctions like the one’s you are making, but I myself am hesitant to talk about this type of agency unless I have done a lot of research. To address your question: Yes, I think that legislation that inadvertently promotes racism, is still racist legislation. Otherwise we have to say: the legislation isn’t racist — it’s systemic; therefore, we the voters aren’t racist – it’s the system. Yet there are still people that benefit more than others and people that suffer more than others. Suffering is then displaced onto an abstract system where no one is responsible.

    Am I being clear? I may have gone too far off track.


  4. I’ve left this comment for a while, in part because I’m not entirely sure what to say in response. Here are some of my scattered reflections.

    1. I’m not sure what to say because I have not done “a lot of research” into Canada’s legislation, and so I’m hesitant to go further into the imperfect distinctions I make in my post. I still stand behind them, but I am not the one to flesh out their nuances. In any case, that’s not what this post is about. It’s primarily an attempt to process some of what I’ve seen and heard over the past few weeks that suggests a very personal and most explicit racism that exists in Winnipeg. As I say in the last paragraph, I do this not because I have the answers or even because my processing is valuable. Indeed, the fact that it took until now for me to have such a revelation suggests that I might be precisely the sort of person *not* to turn to. Be that as it may, writing helps me process what I see, and if in doing so I nudge a few other people along that’s all the better.

    2. Precise analysis of violences is integral for action that does not simply create more violence. But thank you for pointing out that this sort of analysis can also abstract away from people taking and bearing responsibility. That doesn’t come through well in my post and especially not in my last comment. For what it’s worth, when well done I think that precise analysis of systemic violence when well done can intensify responsibility and make it more helpful (i.e., something one can claim and use in some sort of way instead of a vague sense of guilt). E.g., it shows people who are “not racist” and think that racist beliefs are abhorrent that they do indeed participate in a system of white supremacy.

    3. I’m much less interested in effective action to change society than in how the church might act faithfully, working against the racism functional in its own work and theology and witnessing to society. I really mean the last few sentences. I think there is an opportunity here for the church. This also names (or at least can and should name) a way of the church naming and claiming its own responsibility for and complicity in the violences of Winnipeg.


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