Transcript: Winnipeg mayor’s press conference on racism

For the record, here’s what Winnipeg leaders said in response to Maclean’s cover story


Yesterday, Maclean’s published a cover story by Nancy Macdonald that shed light on anti-aboriginal racism run rampant in Winnipeg. Before long, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman convened a press conference that included three prominent voices in the aboriginal community: Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs; Jamie Wilson, Manitoba’s treaty commissioner; and Ovide Mercredi, a former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Paul Wells, Maclean’s political editor, was struck by what he watched. “It’s so common to find public officials shifting blame instead of lifting burdens,” he wrote. “That’s not the path Brian Bowman and his colleagues chose today.”

What follows is a full transcript of that press conference:

Mayor Brian Bowman: Thank you everyone for coming. I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we came together today on Treaty One land and the traditional homeland of the Metis nation. Today we stand together in solidarity to address challenges and to eradicate ignorance and intolerance in our city and across the nation. Ignorance, hatred, intolerance [and] racism exist everywhere. Winnipeg has a responsibility, right now, to turn this ship around and change the way we all relate—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians alike, from coast to coast to coast. We’re here together to face this head-on as one community.

To do so, we have to shine a light on the problem we do have in Winnipeg, and the problem we share with communities across this nation. Without the light, we can’t see what we’re fighting. We need to get real. We also cannot forget that right here, we are home to some of the influential and positive individuals and organizations in the entire nation, who I am so very proud to acknowledge are the ones working every single day making an incredible difference in our community to bridge all divides. It takes all of us working together, committed to inclusivity, equality, love and compassion for everyone. And we’re here today to call on all Winnipeggers and all Canadians to join us to start this path to end racism right here at home, and lead the nation in tolerance and love for one another. I’d like to welcome Grand Chief Nepinak to provide some remarks.

Chief Nepinak: My name is Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. I’m very honoured that Mayor Bowman and the city of Winnipeg have opened the invitation for the voice of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to be heard here today. I’ve been different places around the world where if there’s not dialogue happening, there’s not communication happening, then there’s war happening. And I do believe we should not undervalue the opportunity to come together and to communicate the challenges that we face in the society that we live within. For thousands of years, indigenous people have walked on these lands, and we’ve come together through trade and commerce. In recent times we’ve seen the realization of this great city that we call Winnipeg.

I’m not here to pacify racism, or to provide a politically correct statement on the reality of racism within the institutions that we function within every day. I guarantee right now that somebody is having a racist experience in a restaurant or on the street in Winnipeg somewhere. I’m not here to pacify that or to say that it’s okay. But what I am here to do is I’m here to acknowledge the great work of people who get up every morning of every day to challenge racism in this city. You can see many of them standing here with us today. Presidents of universities, people like Wab Kinew, Michael Champagne, Althea Guiboche, people who get up every day and go into the streets to challenge it. They’re the champions who are challenging racism. You know what? We couldn’t do this work if we didn’t love our families, if we didn’t love this community.

Another nuance to that realization is that we are in a time now where we recognize that there are people who are wilfully blind, wilfully ignorant, to the reality of indigenous people in this society, and they will continue to be that way. We will challenge them, because I believe that for every wilful, ignorant person out there, there are a great number of Canadians who are willing to form an alliance, a partnership, and communicate with us to overcome the challenges we face as a diversified society in Winnipeg and in Canada.

With that said I’d like to thank you very much for the opportunity to share a few words on this great challenge that we face. I want to acknowledge people like Rosanna Deerchild as well, who was brave, because it is bravery that steps forward to communicate and put these issue on the table. We live in a society where great men and women have stood. They’ve given up their lives so that we could create forums for discussion, we could create forums of dialogue where we’d have the bravery to step forward and overcome these things as Canadians and as people. We have a responsibility to the young ones to make these things happen.

I’m not here to pacify. I want people to continue to stand up and be strong, and talk about the racism at your workplace. Talk about the racism that you experience in the stores in this city and across the country. Talk about the racism in the streets in the cities across the country. Let’s have this dialogue now because we are strong enough as a society to overcome these challenges together. Thank you very much.

Mayor Bowman: Thank you very much Grand Chief Nepinak and thank you for your counsel in the discussions we’ve already begun and your leadership in helping break down the barriers that exist in our city. I’d like to now invite Jamie Wilson, Manitoba’s treaty commissioner, to provide remarks:

Jamie Wilson: I come from a community called the Opaskwayak Cree Nation straight across the river from the town of The Pas, and I grew up in an era in the town of The Pas, and a few of my friends and relatives here will remember the era [1971] during the Helen Betty Osborne issue. We had national media, national spotlight with the Aboriginal justice inquiry and the [1989] book and [1991] movie that was released called Conspiracy of Silence. The country was pointing a finger at us, saying, “You’re the most racist community in Canada.” It was a call to action for the two communities. What has happened then since has really been unique. The two communities have begun working together in really, really, deep and meaningful ways.

Now this article and some of the issues that are coming out in the open now are forcing us as a city to realize some of the issues that we face and realize some of the opportunities that we’re not meeting because of racism and because of poor relationships. There are a number of things we can do in this collective call to action. The first thing I feel we can do is educate ourselves. Educate ourselves about our partners in this, what we call the treaty relationship between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people, to better understand how we came together to form this country and the opportunities it afforded all of us. We’ve gotten away from that over the years. I think there’s hopefulness, tremendous hopefulness in this relationship if we get back to a better understanding of what that original relationship was all about.

The second part is just building interpersonal relationships. When I think back to The Pas, I think back to someone like Edwin Jebb, who is an elder in our community who went out of his way to find someone he thought carried a huge amount of racism and stereotypes, and he invited that guy over for coffee. The two of them went for coffee, and they began to know each other as individuals. They began to break down those interpersonal barriers between themselves. It wasn’t an easy friendship, but nonetheless they forged a friendship out of that. That’s more of what I think I would love to see at all levels in the city of Winnipeg. Thank you very much.

Mayor Bowman: For those of you who don’t understand what the treaty commissioner does, please go online and see the information. Commissioner Wilson is doing incredibly valuable work to break down the barriers that we’ve been talking about today, and really educating Winnipeggers and Manitobans that we are all in fact treaty peoples. So thank you very much. I’d like to now ask our chief of police to provide a few words.

Chief Devon Clunis: My remarks will be brief and I hope you won’t take this out of context. I don’t believe that we’re that special in Winnipeg. I don’t believe that racism is a strictly Winnipeg issue. I believe racism is an issue right across the nation, right across the globe. It’s a human condition. What I’ve said about the city of Winnipeg is this: I believe the city of Winnipeg in an incredibly special place. A number of months ago I made this statement: We need to have a really difficult conversation in our city respective of race, and the question was posed to me” “Well, who should start that conversation?” Well, I think you have seen who is starting the conversation today and I think it’s absolutely apropos that our mayor is taking the lead on that. What will make our city special is that we will start this conversation and recognize that we are living in an incredibly diverse city where everyone deserves to have the same opportunities. The city of Winnipeg can truly lead the nation, and truly lead the world in terms of peaceful coexistence, a beautiful environment for people of all races, all ethnicities, all socioeconomic backgrounds to really achieve their potential. That is what will truly make us special. So in that respect yes, the city of Winnipeg is a special place and we can lead the world in terms of race relations. I’m really glad that today our mayor is taking the lead on that. Thank you.

Mayor Bowman: Thanks very much, Chief Clunis. And thanks very much for your ongoing work on dealing with the topic at hand well before I came on the scene here. I’d like to now invite Ovide Mercredi to provide a few remarks.

Ovide Mercredi: I personally have experienced racism in my life, and it’s not something that I wish upon anyone at any time in their journey. But the approach that I’ve taken is to try to make sure that the prejudice and the discrimination did not diminish me as a human being. I tried to convert that negativity to a strength for myself by taking action to resolve it, so that the impact of it did not embitter me as a human being.

Racism is not a Winnipeg issue only; it’s a national problem. And it’s not just a problem of Aboriginal people. Racism is experienced by many Canadians: people of colour, and white people experience racism as well. This is a national problem. I want to thank Maclean’s magazine for the story that they did, and to challenge them to follow up with other stories of where individuals and groups have combatted racism in their particular communities or cities and have made a difference in terms of improving race relations in this country. There are models within universities, within government institutions. We have taken steps to try to address racism through human rights legislation, commissions of human rights and so on. Employers have been challenged by political leaders of all political stripes to initiate equity initiatives as a way of breaking down the prejudice in the workplace. So there are models across the country.

That’s not to say that there’s no work to be done in Winnipeg—there’s a lot of work to be done in Winnipeg. But as you can see behind me, there are people who have the energy to change the way in which we treat each other. And we’re ready for that. The Aboriginal community is ready to sit down, to make sure that in the city of Winnipeg, across the country, that there’s zero tolerance for racism and that it does not impede the opportunities for people to succeed in their own lives. [Remarks continue in Cree]. This, my language that I speak to you now, that you have probably never heard, that is part of my personality. It doesn’t make me wrong or different, you have a language too. It’s called English. And I learned to speak it. I’m not asking you to speak Cree. But what I’m saying is, the fact that I am different, in terms of my culture, my language, and so forth, it doesn’t mean that I should be discriminated against. I have a right to be different. And if we, as a society, make that a basic principle, that all human beings have a right to be different, I think we’d go a long way to solving the intolerance that many people experience. Instead of putting each other down, we should be trying to lift each other up. Thank you.

Mayor Bowman: You can see why I spoke first. Thank you very much for your insight, Ovide. We have a lot of work to do, as a community. A lot of work has been made in previous years, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re not going to end racism tomorrow. But we’re sure as hell going to try. And we’re going to work as the community. That’s the only way we’re going to tackle this problem and deal with it head-on. So you can see the commitment and the support of the leaders who are behind me now. They had, in some cases, probably 20 minutes notice to come down here. And they did. That speaks volumes about the commitment and the resolve of our community to come together. Think of what we’ll be able to do in the next year, in the next four years.

My wife is Ukrainian heritage [chokes on tears]. My family is Metis. I want my boys to be as proud of both of those family lines. And I want every young person in our community, regardless of where you come from, to be proud of Winnipeg. Be proud of who you are. I invite Winnipeggers to join us and be part of breaking down those barriers—for your kids, for my kids, and for future generations. The action has to follow the talk. We’ve been doing a lot of talking; many of us have been talking in quiet conversations with each other. We’ve started to take some early steps. But the action can, and the action will follow. I know that, because I know some of these people [gestures behind him] are very good advocates. And they’re going to make sure that they hold my feet to the fire, city council to the fire, the province, the feds, and each of us as community leaders. So I invite you and I invite the media to be part of that as well. Thank you very much. We’re going to end the formalities, but I invite you to talk to as many of these leaders as possible.

transcribed by Genna Buck

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.