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.