One year later: Winnipeg leaders on a city’s fight against racism

One year after a public pledge to tackle racism, Winnipeg’s civic and Indigenous leaders talk about the progress being made

At a press conference Friday morning, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman declared 2016 as the city’s Year of Reconciliation.

A year ago, a Maclean’s cover story looked at the troubling divide between Winnipeg’s Indigenous population and the rest of the city. The article found that Winnipeg was arguably becoming Canada’s most racist city. The morning it hit newsstands,  Mayor Bowman quickly gathered some of the city’s top leaders for a press conference. In an emotional address, he vowed to tackle the problem head-on.

One year later, his promises included implementing mandatory Indigenous awareness and diversity training for all city workers, personally visiting every Winnipeg high school over the next two years to discuss reconciliation, and expanding the city’s refugee assurance program.

In advance of the press conference, Maclean’s Associate Editor Aaron Hutchins spoke to Bowman, and those who stood with him last year.


Chris Procaylo/Winnipeg Sun/QMI Agency

Scroll down or click each person to see video, hear audio or read text of what each Winnipeg leader said, one year later.

1. Brian Bowman, mayor of Winnipeg
2. Wab Kinew, author and associate vice-president of Indigenous affairs, University of Winnipeg
3. David Barnard, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba
4. Jamie Wilson, treaty commissioner, Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba
5. Jenny Gerbasi, Winnipeg city councillor
6. Althea Guiboche, activist and founder of
7. Devon Clunis, chief of the Winnipeg Police Service
8. Scott Gillingham, Winnipeg city councillor
9. Marty Morantz, Winnipeg city councillor
10. Stephen Kakfwi, former premier of Northwest Territories
11. Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
12. Brian Mayes, Winnipeg city councillor
13. Angela Cassie, director of communications and external relations, Canadian Museum for Human Rights
14. Janice Lukes, Winnipeg city councillor
15. Cindy Gilroy, Winnipeg city councillor
Not pictured: Michael Redhead Champagne, community activist
What they said one year ago

1. Brian Bowman, mayor of Winnipeg

Over the past year, we’ve been busy. I started a website one week after our press conference last January called We asked the community what their thoughts were and how we can move forward together. In what we heard, there were two prevailing themes. One was that we needed to increase our focus on Indigenous inclusion in our community. I established the mayor’s Indigenous advisory circle, which is chaired by Wab Kinew. That group—which has some incredible First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders, including Justice Murray Sinclair—has been working on building cultural understanding, and creating unity and equality in the city.

The second prevailing theme we heard is we need a great meeting of the minds. So we hosted the National Summit on Racial Inclusion at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights last fall. It brought together some of the best minds and most dedicated hearts who’ve been fighting on the front lines of these topics for years. We shared opinions, cultivated some good ideas and elevated the discussion locally and on a national level.

Had we simply tried to kill the messenger, I don’t believe we would have had the level of engagement we’re seeing in the community right now. I read [the Maclean’s article] again recently in preparation for this Friday, just to take stock of where we’re at, and one of the things that I take incredible comfort in is the level of support that we’re getting from community leaders far and wide. I expect the nation will see a community that is coming together to demonstrate how we’ve answered the call head-on. I’m incredibly proud of the city in how it’s chosen a path of unity.

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2. Wab Kinew, author and associate vice-president of Indigenous affairs, University of Winnipeg

At the university where I work we now have an Indigenous course requirement. The province and some of the school boards are moving forward on trying to incorporate more content about Indigenous people. On Friday, the mayor will make another announcement related to education. Again, that will be about trying to provide a baseline of knowledge about Indigenous people to try to create more understanding across cultural boundaries. Hopefully people in the mainstream will be able to have a more informed and a more nuanced conversation about these issues. A lot of that was already in the works [before the Maclean’s article].

For me it will be cool to see the 30-year follow up. I can tell you, having grown up in Winnipeg as a Native kid—often the only Native kid in the classroom—it was terrible racism that I experienced. Taking my sons to school now, I don’t think it’s the same. I don’t think it’s as bad as it was. So hopefully in another 20 years, another 30 years, we’ll have made significant strides and it won’t be an acute problem.

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3. David Barnard, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba

Within the last year, I’ve been through two sweat ceremonies. At one, I received a spirit name from the Ojibwe elder: Kaniibowit Wapshki Muckwa, or Standing White Bear. I introduce myself with that name out of respect for the people of the territory and the practices here.

Within the past year, we’ve revised our strategic plan for the university. We’ve opened the home of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, providing an archival home for the material that was collected by the commission. It has an educational mission. But in the long run, we see for the university that this becomes a centre of research activity, of embedding these things in the culture of the university.

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4. Jamie Wilson, treaty commissioner, Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba

The mayor’s Indigenous advisory council—which I sit on—we’ve really grappled with [questions like]: how do we measure this? How do we make sure we’re making progress? And not just, “Here’s how much money we’ve spent or here’s the people we talked to,” but what difference has this made in our community? What are the employment rates? What are the graduation rates? I’d also like to see that measurement feeding into the cycle of what are we going to do next. This is an issue that everybody is facing and how we grapple with this can set the example for the rest of Canada.

Since the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] recommendations, Manitoba has introduced a bill to make treaty education mandatory for K-12. Young Manitobans now are more educated than any other generation before about First Nations issues.

There are a lot of people who’ve said, “I want to learn about my partner in this marriage—this treaty relationship—or in this partnership we call Canada.” Inevitably that makes the partnership better and they start becoming more invested in that partnership.

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5. Jenny Gerbasi, Winnipeg city councillor

You’re not going to get rid of racism in one year. But there are many efforts, conversations and meetings on a number of initiatives. In public events, it’s more common—almost expected—where we acknowledge that we’re on Treaty One land, that we’re on the traditional homeland of the Metis. You never used to hear that and we hear it all the time now.

The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ [Business Improvement Zone] has an Aboriginal advisory committee. We have an Aboriginal garden, done this year downtown, supported by downtown business. [We are] looking at signage that welcomes using the seven different languages of our Aboriginal peoples. A lot of stuff is in the works and people are out there thinking, “How can we change this culture?”

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6. Althea Guiboche, activist and founder of

There’s more friendliness: people meeting each others’ eyes, taking the time to say hello. There’s more speaking out as groups together. When they come across racism, they come out and speak against it more vocally than before. Our youth are very empowered in this aspect lately. I see lots of posts on Facebook addressing this issue and they’re just done with it. They won’t have it anymore. That speaks well for our future.

But [homelessness] is still happening. Until there are actual changes in the social system, there are thousands going homeless. Complete families are going homeless. There are homeless elders. All races. All ages. It’s not being addressed in a fast enough manner. That’s what scares me. People are still suffering.

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7. Devon Clunis, chief of the Winnipeg Police Service

From day one in my office, I said, “We are going to dramatically change the way we police in this city.” We’re going to employ what I call crime prevention through social development, and that is looking at the social determinants of crime and trying to address those at the grassroots level. That means going into communities that are marginalized and trying to help build resiliency and economic viability. And so recognizing that we can’t just look at an issue relative to crime and say any one particular group has a greater tendency toward crime.

What the article did was heighten for everyone that we need to start looking at our city differently—and realizing that we are a diverse city—and everybody has to have the opportunity to be successful in our city.

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8. Scott Gillingham, Winnipeg city councillor

I had just become chair of Winnipeg Police Board [when the article came out] and right around the same time, one of the things the police board committed to doing was to establish an Indigenous advisory council. The council’s mandate is to work with, advise and give ideas to the board that will enhance and continue to improve the Winnipeg Police Services relationship with the Indigenous community here. The goal is to continue to improve that relationship, to really understand the community even more. If we want to improve our city, rather than argue over where we rank for racism in Canada, let¹s be about the business of making a difference and making a change.

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9. Marty Morantz, Winnipeg city councillor

The part of the article that struck me the most was that nine out of 10 [Manitobans] had reported hearing at some point over the last year something negative about the Indigenous community. If the reaction to the article had been more of a defensive posture—this isn’t true or we disagree with this article—we would not be in the position we are now. Before you can solve a problem, you have to fist admit that you have a problem. I think we’ve gotten over the first step— finally.

In my ward, the Canadian Mennonite University has held two town halls to discuss the future of the Kapyong Barracks. They were held on CMU campus and they were very well attended. It was a very civil conversation. The panels were comprised of, for the most part, members of the aboriginal community, though not exclusively. There were citizens coming out from the neighbourhood wanting to hear more about what the idea would be and what an aboriginal economic improvement zone would look like. I can never remember in the history of this city having a meeting where there were members of the Indigenous communities and members from the local community at-large coming together for a forum like that talking about such important issue.

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10. Stephen Kakfwi, former premier of Northwest Territories

I don’t live in Winnipeg, but I was there in 1974 and 1975. I know what it felt like at that time, which was an incredible apathy and lack of energy. It was almost an ingrained sense of despair and racism on the streets of Winnipeg. And now, I sense a swirling wind of energy—of change—around me every time I go there. In the course of a year, the University of Winnipeg has changed their requirement for graduation to include the need to take at least one course on Indigenous studies. That’s more change than we’ve seen in 50 years. That photo of us seen on newspapers and on national TV captured the attention of so many people.

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11. Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs

A lot of the genesis around the discussion goes to one woman’s willingness to stand up and say: “I live in a racist city.” That’s Rosanna [Deerchild]’s work. We have an indigenous woman who was willing to begin the dialogue and allow it to be turned into a very public discussion. Our markers of success and legitimacy in moving this agenda forward are always going to be tied to how are we impacting the lives of people every day on the ground?

The tone and the mindset are changing in the daily mindset of citizens. Our own Grand Chief from the north, Sheila North Wilson, has gone public to talk about racial profiling that’s happening just in the aisles of the grocery stores. She’s speaking of issues that are far too common in the daily lives of our people that are out there experiencing racism as soon as they walk into the grocery store, the drug store or the department store. I see a much stronger willingness and openness for people to start combatting these issues directly.

We have to look at action often times in some of the less tangible formats. One of those is to create space for dialogue. The mayor had a racial inclusion summit and that, for me, identified the fact that we don’t even have a full understanding of what segments or services of society are out there to combat issues of racism. It was noted that the [Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs] was left out of the invitations for the racial inclusion summit and then somebody went about saying everybody was invited. When you’re a service-oriented organization like AMC through our Eagle Urban Transition Centre, where we thousands of people every year walking through the door dealing with issues of racism, I think we deserve a recognized spot in the discussion. That didn’t happen. So there’s going to be growing pains along the way and we’re seeing that now.

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12. Brian Mayes, Winnipeg city councillor

The Chamber of Commerce had a day on understanding urban reserves a few months ago. Nobody would have dared do that five or 10 years ago, so I thought that was a step forward.

The thing I’ve been working on for years and am still trying to get through here is an urban Peace Corps. They do this in other cities where you have relatively affluent young people and they spend a summer working on the other side of the tracks and learn about those communities. It would to help kids from places like my ward (St. Vital) learn more about the North End and the core. It would be really helpful to break down some of the barriers. I’m trying to get some money for that in the budget. I’ve been writing about this concept for over 20 years and I’ve never been closer.

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13. Angela Cassie, director of communications and external relations, Canadian Museum for Human Rights

We’ve had a few changes in our exhibits over the last year. The largest would be the inclusion of the Witness Blanket. Artist Carey Newman, from Victoria, travelled to every province and territory with his team to work with Indian Residential School survivors to gather objects and artifacts that he’s made into a stunning blanket that’s framed in cedar. That’s been an important addition to our exhibit program as it allows people through the use of art to begin to understand the history of residential schools but also the ongoing intergenerational impact.

We’ve also made a few adjustments in other exhibits, in particular in the Breaking the Silence gallery, where we do examine Indian Residential Schools in a gallery that looks at mass atrocities, crimes against humanity and genocide. We’ve added content in response to the TRC report that looks at cultural genocide.

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14. Janice Lukes, Winnipeg city councillor

[There’s been] more of an understanding and more outreach than there’s ever been before in our communities. Whatever the activity or event, the media talks about it, organizations talk about it and then people talk about it over coffee. People talk about it in their homes.

My kids are in grade 8 and I know there’s more in-depth [Indigenous] curriculum being developed, but you always want to see it sooner. Get that into schools. That should be a real focus. Maybe it is in some areas, but I know in south Winnipeg—in the schools that my kids have gone to—it’s not. And I’d sure like to see that.

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15. Cindy Gilroy, Winnipeg city councillor

As the chair of the Citizen Equity Committee, I wanted to make sure that we had funding for community groups that are on the ground dealing with these issues. The [National Centre for] Truth and Reconciliation had an education day at our convention centre on Nov. 4. The Citizens Equity Committee was able to help fund that so that students were able to learn what Truth and Reconciliation was, a little bit about our Treaties and what they mean to people. I think understanding that at a young age is really important. We talk about us all being Treaty people and I think we don’t always teach that to our kids.

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Michael Redhead Champagne, community activist (not pictured)

Some of things that have been really exciting over the last year have been the Meet Me at the Bell Tower welcome series, where we invited different communities to come out and mix with the urban Indigenous community—eat together, laugh together and learn about one another’s cultures. We’ve also been able to create the 13 Fires conversation series. It gives us a chance as Winnipeggers to come together and identify solutions [to things] we feel are perpetuating the racism in our communities.

What ended up happening as a result of the article last year was that people began to have a much more blunt conversation about the racism that we see every day. It was much more acceptable for people to bring up and talk about racism, to name it and to really work on creating some kind of response.

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What they said a year ago:

Just two-and-a-half hours after reading last year’s Maclean’s cover story on racism in Winnipeg, the city’s mayor, Brian Bowman, stood before the media with 30 aboriginal leaders and advocates at his side. The leaders, assembled hastily, stood before the media in solidarity, with promises to “turn this ship around.” In the days after that Jan. 22 press conference, Maclean’s spoke to some of those people who were in the room that day about the meaning of that moment. An extended selection of some of their words are below.

Activate the interactive portrait by moving your mouse on top of it, or tap it on mobile. For the best experience on mobile, flip your phone view to landscape mode.

Interactive by Adrian Lee. Interviews, which have been condensed and edited, were done by Rachel Browne and Genna Buck. Video credits: Videographer, Sam Karney. Editor, Kayla Chobotiuk. Producer, Natalie Castellino.
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