Reflecting on the day Winnipeg changed
On January 22, Maclean’s magazine published a story that jolted the nation and even received international press attention: Canada, especially Winnipeg, has a racism problem.
Reacting swiftly, Indigenous and civic leaders, including University of Manitoba President David Barnard, met at city hall and stood with Mayor Brian Bowman [BA/96] to show solidarity and their commitment to enact change – meaningful, robust, permanent change to systems and cultures.
Six days later Maclean’s asked the leaders to reflect on that momentous day and to explain what it meant to them. President Barnard offered the magazine his reflections, which we re-publish here.
I was at the university and my office received a call from the mayor’s office. I hadn’t seen the article. The mayor called to say he was asking a group of people from the city to come together in solidarity against racism in the city. So I made some adjustments to my schedule and went. I hadn’t heard anything about the article until the mayor called and asked for support and for me to be part of it.
I know the mayor, he was, several years ago, president of the alumni association of the university, and from that, I was aware of his candidacy in the run-up to the election and we’ve interacted a couple of times since. He’s been very busy since he was elected, trying to provide positive leadership for the city and when he asked for support to express opposition to racism, I was certainly happy to be part of that.
I had very little time to read the article as I was rushing from the university and other commitments to the meeting with the mayor.
I think that all of us are aware that racism exists in Canada, it exists in Winnipeg, and it’s something that we don’t like. It hurts everyone: Indigenous and non-Indigenous. We all want to get rid of it. So when the mayor asked for support for that position, I was happy to be involved.
In my mind, there’s two aspects to the article. One is that there’s racism in Canada and in Winnipeg in particular, and there’s no argument about that. The sensationalism about Winnipeg being the worst place, I’m not sure what the justification of that might be or how that might be assessed. To me, that part isn’t nearly as significant as recognizing that there is racism and that we need to deal with it.
We’ve made bridging the gap between Indigenous people in this province and non-Indigenous people a priority for the university the entire time I’ve been here. And it’s been part of a strong tradition at the University of Manitoba. We have a reasonably large number of Indigenous students, but it’s not representative, and we want to have more of them on campus. We realize that racism can be a problem, we have a series of talks that we call “Visionary Conversations” and I think two and a half years ago we had one entitled “We Need to Talk About Racism” that explored racism on our campus and in our city. We’re trying to work with Indigenous leaders to try to build a welcoming environment on campus and to make the Indigenous reality in this province a larger part of what’s visible at the University of Manitoba.
“…there’s racism in Canada and in Winnipeg in particular, and there’s no argument about that.”
The main takeaway for me from the press conference was the readiness of leaders from different parts of the community to come together with the mayor to be openly and collectively committed to dealing with something that really matters.
The university senate and board approved a new strategic plan for the next five years entitled Taking our Place, that was approved just before Christmas and it contains as one of its major undertakings to create pathways to Indigenous achievement and makes a number of commitments on behalf of the university like fostering a greater understanding of Indigenous knowledges, cultures, and traditions among students, faculty and staff. Building a culturally rich and safe and supportive learning and work environment. There are several things that we’ve already committed to doing. We recognize the need to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in many ways in this province. The university was strongly committed before. I’m not sure if anything specifically arose out of the press conference. It was really an opportunity to declare collectively that a lot of us are committed to doing things differently.
Ultimately, I think what we would like to see is the same kinds of opportunities and outcomes–socially, economically, culturally–for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this province and in this city. To work towards that end, I think there are a number of things that need to be done: we need to recognize the history and the impact of the history between Indigenous people and those who have come more recently to Canada. The university has been involved in that heavily with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that’s dealing with the aftermath of the Indian Residential School period. We are the central node in a legacy research centre, putting together that national research centre and making that history known because it has shaped the fabric of Canada in many ways that I don’t think many Canadians understood before the Commission was doing its work.
I think it’s important for us to redress the historical wrongs and to create circumstances where Indigenous people have the same kinds of opportunities in their lives, for themselves and for their children, as other people in Canada. That’s a big agenda, and each institution and organization has a clear role to play in it. There are some clear roles for universities, especially universities that are located where there are a relatively large number of Indigenous people, and where a lot of the historical wrongs need to be taken into consideration as we move forward as a community. It’s important to give educational opportunities to Indigenous people and to create a welcoming environment in the institutions.
I think it’s positive that people came together and were willing to stand together and collectively make this statement. I think for many of us, it was not a difficult decision because it’s consistent with things that we are already working on and committed to making better. And I think that’s true for many organizations that were represented there. I think there is a spirit of collaboration and people are working well together. Certainly the mayor, I think, is committed to fostering and facilitating it, and that’s a good thing.
I would not overemphasize this moment. I think that things are getting better and it’s not an easy job to make them better. All citizens need to be aware of this issue and work towards making this a more mutually accepting society. But the institutions, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are aware that we need to keep emphasizing this. It’s a real issue for us and we need to keep making the situation better.
This is an important issue for the University of Manitoba. It’s very high on our priority list, has been for a very long time. It’s one of the areas of focus in our strategic plan as it was in the previous one and it’s good to see solidarity in the community and a collective commitment to working together to making this a better place.