Is this a test?
There’s a boil water advisory in Winnipeg tonight. I can’t help but feel like this is a test.
Given the news about Winnipeg lately, I see a certain poetic justice in this development, whether it’s some machinations of new mayor Brian Bowman to take a litmus of Winnipeggers’ true resolve to work toward mending relationships with First Nations people in our province, or whether it’s God giving us just the littlest taste of the hardship our fellow citizens face.
Awareness has been growing for some time that we truly have a problem in this city. I think the human rights museum began to bring to some Winnipeggers’ attention the irony that such an edifice was to rise on land that is still contested to be stolen from First Nations people and sacrilegiously used by the oppressors. The Idle No More movement, the Eighth Fire tv series on CBC, Michael Champagne’s Meet Me at the Belltower initiative, and the election of MLA Kevin Chief have all been steps of Aboriginal people asserting themselves as people with agency and self-determination. Then, this summer, the unbelievably awful murder of Tina Fontaine followed closely by the tragic death of “homeless hero” Faron Hall and a brave Rinelle Harper's narrow escape from a vicious assault, plus the inquest on the senseless ER death of Brian Sinclair finally made “the divide between Winnipeg’s Aboriginal residents and the rest” an inescapable reality discussed in the news, by the chief of police, and by the mayoral candidates.
So the Maclean’s headline calling Winnipeg Canada’s most racist city shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It was sensationalist and perhaps melodramatic in presentation but not untrue. (Why did they put that picture of Rosanna Deerchild on the cover, though! She’s a beautiful woman with a sardonic wit and feisty spirit – why portray her as a hopeless, angry victim?)
The new mayor, who quietly claimed his Metis heritage as he took office, responded quickly to the story by owning up to the problem and promising to confront it. He assembled a host of Aboriginal leaders to speak to the issue in a hastily called press conference.
And now the water. I’ve never experienced such a thing before, or at least, not in the developed world. But what has it to do with First Nations people?
The city of Winnipeg enjoys its usually healthy and reliable drinking water due to an aqueduct that brings it from Shoal Lake. Our gain, however, is local Aboriginal people’s loss. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation was dispossessed of their land and moved onto a peninsula subsequently cut off from the mainland. The cruelest irony is that the isolated community has been under a boil water advisory for almost 20 years.
So, Winnipeg, how will we respond to our evening of inconvenience? Will we complain and move on? Or will the momentary inconvenience move us to compassion for the years of frustration and danger our own fellow citizens face?
Having confessed our racism – or grudgingly admitting it when the charge was laid bare before us as a national shame – will we step up and call for justice? Or accept second-class treatment for the unseen and forgotten?
ASIDE: It's too late to figure out how to weave this into the larger argument, but I've wanted to say it ever since serial killer Shawn Lamb hit the news for preying on women in Downtown and the West End.
Racism isn’t just name calling. It’s also indifference to the suffering of others. The Maclean's article quoted edgy FreeP columnist Bartley Kives defining white privilege as “not being worried your daughter is going to be raped and killed because of who she is.”
This reality struck me particularly when I heard how frightened women were by the Lamb situation. I walk the same streets after dark and feel no fear -- because as a middle class white woman, I'm not the target. And I felt the weight of my privilege.