Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Reconciliation and the City

Dear Winnipeg,

This Friday is National Indigenous Peoples Day.

And as I sit here writing to you, on my 20-year-old sofa that is located on Treaty 1 territory, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dene, and Dakota, and the Birthplace and Homeland of the Métis Nation, I think this is an appropriate occasion to talk about some of the things that have been on my mind recently.

[I mean, other than the fact that it’s probably time to get a new sofa.]

I want to start out by stating that I am not Indigenous. What I am about to write is a reflection of where I am in my journey of learning and my commitment to reconciliation. I humbly accept that I do not have it all figured out, and maybe never will.

So here goes.

By now, we should all know the general gist of your founding as a city. It goes something like this:

For more than 6,000 years, Indigenous peoples lived, traded and celebrated at the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.

Then the Europeans came and at first everything was pretty good. They built some fur trading forts in 1738, and again in 1809. By 1811, the Selkirk Settlers started to arrive, and the Indigenous peoples in the area helped them learn how to not freeze and starve to death. [A critical life skill, if you ask me.]

In 1867, Canada becomes a thing, and then things start to go south pretty quickly.

Louis Riel, merriest of the Merry Men of Assiniboia, in the astonishing year 1870, helps negotiate Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. Outlaw defender of right in the astounding years to come!

In 1871, Treaty 1 is negotiated and signed. But then, a mere 5 years later, Canada turns around and creates the Indian Act, and 4 years after that, Residential Schools are born. By 1885, Louis Riel is hanged by the neck, and a new Canadian rule makes it that Indigenous peoples are no longer allowed to leave the reserves, a reality which is enforced until the 1940s.

[Wait, is this starting to sound like a history lesson? Yes, but at least there’s no math involved!]

In the meantime, with Indigenous peoples physically displaced and economically isolated from all this prime land at the Forks by the muscle of the government, you, the City of Winnipeg, are founded on that very prime land and begin to flourish. [Thanks for the land, Indigenous people!]

And that’s where the story of colonialism in Winnipeg’s development usually ends: with a reminder of how very important it is to acknowledge this dark portion of our collective history, if we are to heal from the legacy it has left us.

Except that the story of colonial oppression and displacement of Indigenous peoples doesn’t actually end there. [Whoa, plot twist!]

You see, for several decades in the early 1900s, you were a boom-town, and land speculators were everywhere, scooping up all kinds of land on the outskirts of town (most of which was swindled out of the hands of Métis families who were promised scrip as part of the Confederation deal).

But by the time of the Great Depression, it became obvious that your fate as one of the world’s great cities was not to be.

So by 1945, speculators had abandoned more land than you yourself took up:

Greater Winnipeg Tax Forfeited Lands (1946), published by the Metropolitan Planning Committee and Winnipeg Town Planning Commission. Image courtesy of University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.

So as that land was abandoned by the settling white man, Métis people came back to it, setting up dozens of small (but sometimes technically illegal) towns on that same land. Mostly these families were left to themselves, because hey, no one (white) wanted that land anymore anyways.

That is, until they did want it again.

In the 1950s, the powers that be decided to abandon the inner city in favour of suburbanization. After all, a lot of money could be made by the dominant class by essentially building a new city on the outskirts of the old city.

But there was a problem. All those Métis settlements, such as Rooster Town, had to go.

A campaign of bad press was launched to paint them as less than fit. They were dirty, and disease-ridden. It was a public health concern. They didn’t even have running water and sanitary sewers. And of course they didn’t, because when they had asked for a system of clean running water, the government had refused to provide it.

Terrible, I know. Can you imagine a government, our government, refusing to provide clean drinking water to an Indigenous community?

[Uncomfortable silence…]

The families were offered a token amount to vacate. Those that didn’t take the offer saw their houses bulldozed or burned to the ground anyway. Our municipal government did this. In August 1959.

Immediately after, construction on Grant Park Shopping Centre would begin atop the ashes of Rooster Town. Middle class ‘Peggers would soon be livin’ the suburban dream! [Thanks for the land, Indigenous people!]

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as Winnipeggers of means deserted the City Centre to settle in the newly (re-) vacated suburbs, waves of Indigenous people came to Winnipeg to seek their economic fortunes. Even though they were now allowed to leave the reserves, they still weren’t welcome in most places. So they made their homes in the inner city, because, hey, no one (white) wanted that land anymore anyways.

That is, until they did want it again.

[Are you starting to see a theme here?]

Like a petulant child that only wants a toy when their sibling has it, the 1980s, 90s and 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in “downtown renewal”, and therefore, in the land now (re-) occupied by Indigenous peoples. After all, a lot of money could be made by the dominant class by essentially bulldozing the old city, and building another new city on top of it.

From 1985 to 1987, three square blocks of small business and residences were expropriated and bulldozed to the ground to make way for the construction of Portage Place, a project funded almost entirely with government money.

[More displacement of people for another shopping mall? Are we being serious here?]

And that was just one of many such projects in that era. [Thanks for the land, Indig… well, you get the picture.]

In 1999, Centre Venture was founded to continue the hard work of revitalizing our downtown. Their M.O. was and is more of the same: bulldoze the places where there are already (most often Indigenous) people, and replace them with new places for (most often white) people.

In 2010, in a truly shocking lack of sensitivity, Centre Venture helped broker a deal to build a new 53,000 sq ft facility for an organization who’s stated mission is converting youth to Christianity. Across the street from the Circle of Life Thunderbird House.

$6.6 million of public money went into this. Only 13 years after the last Residential School in Canada closed.

[Still feel like colonialism is ancient history?]

But wait, there’s more.

A few years later, the SHED district was created over 11 blocks of downtown as yet another tool in Centre Venture’s toolkit, with one of its stated objectives being to “Protect Investment”:

A commitment to investment protection is an overarching principle. Recognizing the significant level of investment being made by various private development interests within The District, a concerted effort needs to be made to protect those investments through corresponding investments in the public realm, ensuring high quality design, marketing and promotions, and strategic land assemblies and incentives to influence desired forms of development.

Winnipeg SHED District Planning Document, 2014.

Sounds relatively harmless in theory. But what does it look like in practice?

It’s racial profiling and security screening at our downtown library.

It’s shutting down the Bell Hotel to get rid of the (Indigenous) drunks downtown, while simultaneously replacing them with the (white) drunks at Bell MTS.

It’s bulldozing the Carlton Inn, where many Indigenous families from out of town would stay when in the city for medical appointments or to visit relatives, only to replace it with a luxury hotel for rich (and presumably white) folks.

In brief, it looks like more of the same ‘ol story of displacement, taking of land, and exploitation.

Could it be different? Absolutely.

Instead of using a top-down, colonial system of development, one that builds new stuff and abandons it, only to start the cycle again, one that protects big capital at the expense of local residents, we could use a grassroots, bottom-up, neighbourhoods-first approach.

Rather than displacing and replacing “blighted” neighbourhoods, we could instead do the harder (but ultimately more rewarding and sustainable) work of making our places better for the people who already live there.

Added bonus, it’ll be better for your municipal bottom line as well.

But that means a drastically different approach.

That means listening and responding to what the people who live in a neighbourhood need. It means maintaining what we’ve already built. It means taking care of our most vulnerable citizens. It means being good stewards of our public goods for the benefit of everyone. It means making many small investments over time, rather than few big ones.

That’s what reconciliation can look like in urbanism.

It’s easy to say that colonialism and oppression of Indigenous peoples in our city isn’t our fault, because it happened long ago, and we weren’t there, and we didn’t know.

But now you know that it continues to this day. And you can’t un-know that.

So the choice is yours. You can choose to let things continue as is, and be complicit in the ongoing oppression of Indigenous people.

Or you can stand up and demand better for Indigenous people, and indeed for all of us.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry presented 231 Calls for Justice. And while that is a lengthy list to get through, the longest journey begins with a single step.

And I suggest starting with these three:

  • 15.2 Decolonize by learning the true history of Canada and Indigenous history in your local area. Learn about and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ history, cultures, pride, and diversity, acknowledging the land you live on and its importance to local Indigenous communities, both historically and today.
  • 15.4 Using what you have learned and some of the resources suggested, become a strong ally. Being a strong ally involves more than just tolerance; it means actively working to break down barriers and to support others in every relationship and encounter in which you participate.
  • 15.8 Help hold all governments accountable to act on the Calls for Justice, and to implement them according to the important principles we set out.

Your move, Winnipeg.


Elmwood Guy

P.S. If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, I highly recommend Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg by Owen Toews, from which I borrowed many of the ideas here. I did find it a little heavy on the academic language, but once you get used to that, it’s a REALLY eye-opening read.