Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst

From 2015: How the death of Tina Fontaine has finally forced the city to face its festering race problem.
Photograph by John Woods
Thelma Favel, Tina Fontaine’s aunt, can’t forgive herself for letting Tina go to Winnipeg. (Photographs in this story by John Woods)

“Oh Goddd how long are aboriginal people going to use what happened as a crutch to suck more money out of Canadians?” Winnipeg teacher Brad Badiuk wrote on Facebook last month. “They have contributed NOTHING to the development of Canada. Just standing with their hand out. Get to work, tear the treaties and shut the FK up already. Why am I on the hook for their cultural support?”

Another day in Winnipeg, another hateful screed against the city’s growing indigenous population. This one from a teacher (now on unpaid leave) at Kelvin High School, long considered among the city’s progressive schools—alma mater to just about every Winipegger of note, from Marshall McLuhan to Izzy Asper, Fred Penner and Neil Young.

Badiuk’s comments came to light the day Rinelle Harper—the shy 16-year-old indigenous girl left for dead in the city’s Assiniboine River after a brutal sexual assault—spoke publicly for the first time after her recovery. She called for an inquiry to help explain why so many indigenous girls and women are being murdered in Winnipeg, and elsewhere in Canada.

Badiuk’s comments came while the city was still reeling from the murder of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old child from the Sagkeeng First Nation who was wrapped in plastic and tossed into the Red River after being sexually exploited in the city’s core.

They came after Nunavummiuq musician Tanya Tagaq, last year’s Polaris Music Prize winner, who complained that while out to lunch in downtown Winnipeg where she was performing with the city’s ballet this fall, “a man started following me calling me a ‘sexy little Indian’ and asking to f–k.”

They came the very week an inquest issued its findings in the death of Brian Sinclair, an indigenous 45-year-old who died from an entirely treatable infection after being ignored for 34 hours in a city ER.

They came in the wake of a civic election dominated by race relations after a racist rant by a frontrunner’s wife went viral: “I’m really tired of getting harassed by the drunken native guys” downtown, Gord Steeves’s wife, Lori, wrote on Facebook. “We all donate enough money to keep their sorry asses on welfare, so shut the f–k up and don’t ask me for another handout!” The former city councillor and long-serving, centrist politician didn’t bother apologizing. He lost, but not because of this.

For decades, the friendly Prairie city has been known for its smiling, lefty premiers, pacifist, Mennonite writers and a love affair with the Jets. Licence plates here bear the tag “Friendly Manitoba.” But events of last fall served to expose a darker reality. The Manitoba capital is deeply divided along ethnic lines. It manifestly does not provide equal opportunity for Aboriginals. And it is quickly becoming known for the subhuman treatment of its First Nations citizens, who suffer daily indignities and appalling violence. Winnipeg is arguably becoming Canada’s most racist city.

But indigenous activists believe Tina Fontaine’s death also marked a turning point in race relations; that, for perhaps the first time, the brutalization and murder of a 15-year-old was not dismissed in Winnipeg as an “Aboriginal problem.” Ironically, from the fall’s horrific events, a sense of unity has begun to emerge. Even Thelma Favel, who raised Tina, believes her niece did not die in vain. Meaningful change will not come easily, but all this holds the promise, however faint, of a more hopeful future for the city.


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Thelma, who never misses the suppertime news, tried to strike fear into the hearts of her nieces, Tina and Sarah Fontaine. She’d show them TV programs on murdered and missing indigenous women, clip newspaper articles. “It’s not safe out there for Aboriginals girls,” she’d caution.

In the end, even she was unable to protect Tina. On Aug. 17, the girl’s remains were pulled from the Red River’s murky waters near the Alexander Docks in downtown Winnipeg. The murder of the 15-year-old was only the most recent, horrifying example of the violence faced by Winnipeg’s indigenous community—a world apart from white Winnipeg. Police divers discovered her by accident: they were searching the Red for the drowned remains of Faron Hall, the Dakota man dubbed the “Homeless Hero” for twice saving Winnipeggers from the river that eventually took his life.


Tina’s body was found in the same spot where, in March 1961, the remains of Jean Mocharski were found—the first cold case from Winnipeg in a new database of murdered and missing Aboriginal women. The 43-year-old mother of seven had been beaten and stabbed. Like Tina’s, her murder remains unsolved. “We value dogs more than we do these women,” says indigenous playwright Ian Ross.

Thelma, an eloquent mother of three, and her husband, Joseph, had been caring for Tina and Sarah since they were three and four, when their father, Eugene, was diagnosed with lymphoma. (Their mother had left the girls as babies.) Eugene had been raising the girls on his own in Winnipeg, where he worked at a tire plant. He knew the girls would be better off with Thelma, his aunt, who had helped raise him.

In a handwritten note dated Nov. 21, 2003, which still hangs in a simple wooden frame in Thelma’s living room in Powerview-Pine Falls, about 100 km northeast of Winnipeg, Eugene signed over temporary custody of Tina, his “little monkey,” and Sarah, whom he’d lovingly nicknamed “chubby.” Tina, a beautiful wisp of a girl, flourished at École Powerview after Thelma pulled her and Sarah from their reserve school. Math was her favourite subject. Her boyfriend was deaf; the pair communicated by texting.

Eugene was a constant presence. He never missed Christmas or a birthday. But he never had the chance to bring them back home to Winnipeg. He became addicted to his pain medication and the alcohol he was using to cope. On Oct. 31, 2011—just shy of the four months doctors told him he had left to live—Eugene was beaten to death in a dispute over money.

Tina was left deeply scarred. “Two people were killed that night,” says Thelma. Last spring, Tina ran away twice to Winnipeg to visit her mom—a relationship Thelma encouraged, feeling the girl needed another parental bond after losing her dad. In early July, she allowed Tina to visit her mom in Winnipeg for a week: it was her reward for excellent grades that June. The night before she left, the family gathered to pray and ask for protection, as they do every night. The next morning Thelma gave Tina $60 and a calling card. “If things don’t work out, use the calling card and I’ll come get you,” she said.

When Tina didn’t come home, Thelma reported her missing to police. Little is known about what happened to her in the weeks after that. She cut off her long, black hair. Her family believes she began using drugs. Friends say she was working in the sex trade to earn money. She was failed repeatedly by agencies meant to protect her.

On Aug. 8, police came across Tina in a roadside stop: she was in a vehicle with a male driver who was allegedly intoxicated. He was taken into police custody. Officers let Tina go, even though she was listed as a high-risk missing person. A few hours later she was rushed to Children’s Hospital after being found passed out in a core-area back alley. Her family was not notified she was in hospital. When she woke, Child and Family Services placed Tina in a downtown hotel where she was allowed to walk away. (In March 2014, the average number of kids in city hotels was 65, up from 17 two years earlier. The bloated system simply cannot cope with the huge number of children in care in Manitoba. Almost 90 per cent of children in foster care in Manitoba are Aboriginal, the highest rate in Canada.)

Tina was last seen on Aug. 9, shortly after 3 a.m., by a new friend. “I want to go home to Sagkeeng, where I’m loved,” she told her. The friend says Tina was approached by a man who asked her to perform a sex act. Eight days later she was pulled from the river, identified by a tattoo on her back bearing the name of her father, Eugene.

On a recent frigid weekday afternoon, a 14-year-old Aboriginal girl, coming off a high after huffing gas, told Maclean’s none of her girlfriends have changed their behaviour in the wake of Tina’s murder, laughing at the suggestion. She’d known Tina. Her friends know Rinelle Harper. “That’s never going to happen to us,” she said. Within days, Winnipeg police would announce another missing Aboriginal girl last seen in the North End. She is just 14—missing more than a month.

Since Tina’s death, Thelma has refused to leave her tidy home on Louis Riel Drive. “Every time I leave the house I feel like I’m having a panic attack.” She can’t forgive herself for letting Tina go to Winnipeg. “It’s like somebody ripped your heart out of your chest. To this day, it’s like they’re stomping, stomping, stomping on it.

“They treated her like garbage, wrapping her up in a bag and throwing her into the river,” she says. “She wasn’t garbage. She was my baby.”

Tina’s story cast a spotlight onto the shameful state of life for many Aboriginals in Winnipeg, where disdain for poor, inner-city Natives has long bubbled just barely beneath the surface. When measuring racism, social scientists tend to rely on opinion polling and media analyses. Last year, for example, Winnipeg recorded the highest proportion of racist tweets of the six Canadian cities known for high levels of hate crime, according to data collected by University of Alberta researcher Irfan Chaudhry. (Manitoba recorded the second-highest rate of hate crimes last year, after Ontario, according to a recent report.)


It is difficult to isolate Winnipeg or even Manitoba in opinion polling, which tends to group the Prairie provinces (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) together. But from them, a deeply troubling portrait of the region emerges. In poll after poll, Manitoba and Saskatchewan report the highest levels of racism in the country, often by a wide margin.

One in three Prairie residents believe that “many racial stereotypes are accurate,” for example, higher than anywhere else in Canada. In Alberta, just 23 per cent do, according to polling by the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration (CIIM). And 52 per cent of Prairie residents agree that Aboriginals’ economic problems are “mainly their fault.” Nationally, the figure drops to 36 per cent.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan also report the highest number of racist incidents, according to polling conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. In the last year, nine in 10 Manitobans reported hearing a negative comment about an indigenous person. [tweet this] That’s compared with six in 10 in New Brunswick, according to that poll.

Generally, when groups interact, there is a correlating drop in prejudice as understanding grows, says Jack Jedwab, executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies. But in Manitoba, where 17 per cent of the population is Aboriginal—the highest proportion among provinces, and four times the national average—and where 62 per cent reported “some contact” with indigenous people in the last year, the opposite appears to be true. Just six per cent of people in Manitoba and Saskatchewan consider Aboriginal people “very trustworthy.” In Atlantic Canada, 28 per cent do.

Just 61 per cent of Prairie residents said they would be comfortable having an Aboriginal neighbour, compared with 80 per cent in Ontario, according to a recent CBC/Environics poll; and just 50 per cent would be comfortable being in a romantic relationship with an indigenous person, compared to 66 per cent in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

This was a particularly bizarre result, says Niigaan Sinclair, who teaches Native studies at the University of Manitoba; after all, he adds with a chuckle, one in two Manitobans has indigenous blood. In the end, we are who we think we are. Culture defines identity.

In Manitoba, the problem appears to be getting worse, not better, at a time when the Aboriginal population is the fastest-growing in the province. The province registered a significant decline in its opinion of Aboriginal people in the last five years. Just 13 per cent of Manitobans have “very favourable” views of Aboriginal citizens, the lowest share in the country, and down from 32 per cent in 2007, according to CIIM data.

So what explains the unusually high degree of discrimination? To Sinclair, it is no coincidence that Manitoba was the only province founded in violence. The failed indigenous uprising headed by Metis leader Louis Riel led directly to the even bloodier Northwest Rebellion 15 years later, creating generations of animosity. But the playwright Ian Ross believes this discrimination is largely borne of fear—“that Indians are getting something you don’t have.”

Earlier this fall, Robert Falcon-Ouellette, director of the University of Manitoba’s Aboriginal focus programs, hit the Grant Park Shopping Centre in Winnipeg’s south end to hustle for signatures for his mayoral nomination form. The 37-year-old was a late entrant to the election. He’d cobbled together a campaign staff—idealistic political neophytes he knew from academia and activists he’d met at last year’s Idle No More rallies.

It was an ugly entry into politics. “I know you,” a shopper told Falcon-Ouellette, approaching him shortly after he arrived at the mall. “You’re that guy running for mayor. You’re an Indian,” he said, pointing a finger at Falcon-Ouellette. “I don’t want to shake your hand. You Indians are the problem with the city. You’re all lazy. You’re drunks. The social problems we have in the city are all related to you.”

Photograph by John Woods
Michael Champagne, left, holds weekly rallies in the North End; Jenna Wirch’s life has been filled with suicide, sex work and foster homes. (Photograph by John Woods)

Comments like these were the reason Falcon-Ouellette—who lost his mayoral run but is currently seeking the Liberal nomination for Winnipeg Centre, a riding long held by the NDP’s Pat Martin—chose to enter politics last summer. “I want to change perceptions,” he says. “I have my Ph.D., two masters’ degrees. I was in the army for 18 years,” says the Cree academic, who ties his long, chestnut hair in a tidy braid. “No matter what I do—for some people it will never be enough.” Initially, Falcon-Ouellette was written off as a fringe candidate. But his campaign took off when he outed Winnipeg as a city divided by colour, “opening a door on the soul of the city,” Sean Kavanagh, a civic affairs reporter for the CBC in Winnipeg, wrote in an analysis piece. 

Shortly after, the Winnipeg Free Press released poll results showing that 75 per cent of Winnipeggers consider the city’s divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens a “serious problem.” (Nationally, Manitobans are most worried by a rise in racism: 65 per cent, versus 48 per cent in neighbouring Ontario.)

In the end, Falcon-Ouellette finished third. Winnipeg chose Brian Bowman, an urbane, boyish-looking privacy lawyer over NDP veteran Judy Wasylycia-Leis by a wide margin. In the days after the election, Bowman was anointed the city’s first Metis mayor by local media, although his heritage came as a surprise to most Winnipeggers.

Bowman, in an interview with Maclean’s shortly after his swearing-in, took pains to downplay talk of a racial divide in the city: “Racism affects many communities around the country,” he said. “I don’t like the tag—‘divided.’ It predisposes that everyone in different groups thinks a certain way. That’s just not the case.”

In light of recent events, many in the city’s indigenous community were furious to hear this from the new mayor. “It’s heartbreaking and insulting,” says Charlie Fettah, one half of the indigenous hip-hop duo Winnipeg Boyz. “You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb to not see the divide. If Bowman is just going to come in singing Kumbaya, he’s the wrong mayor for this crucial juncture.”


Winnipeg is physically divided by the CP rail yards, which cut the primarily Aboriginal North End from the rest of the city. North End Winnipeg looks nothing like the idyllic, tree-lined, middle-class neighbourhoods to the south. It is the poorest and most violent neighbourhood in urban Canada. Many white Winnipeggers have never visited. To Falcon-Ouellette, a Calgary native who moved to Winnipeg from Quebec City, it is “Canada’s greatest shame.”

The neighbourhood is home to two of the country’s three poorest postal codes—the median household income in the North End is $22,293, less than half that of the wider city at $49,790. The homicides that plague the city, earning it the nickname “Murderpeg” and the country’s highest rate of violent crime, are a primarily North End phenomenon. On a recent visit there, a Selkirk Avenue clothing store—one of few remaining businesses on a strip crowded with social service agencies and boarded-up storefronts—was closing for good. The area had simply become too dangerous, the store’s owner explained.

One in three North End residents drop out of school before Grade 9, leaving huge swaths of young residents wholly disconnected from the labour market. One in six children are apprehended by Manitoba’s Child and Family Services. Girls as young as 11 or 12 routinely work the stroll. On North Main Street, traffic slows to a stall when intoxicated residents stumble across the street. Solvent abuse is as common as alcoholism here, and rising. Even in December’s cold, kids as young as nine clutch gas-soaked rags; some have begun stuffing them directly into their mouths for a more powerful high.

“I used to tell myself I wouldn’t live to see my sweet 16,” says 24-year-old Jenna Wirch. “I was sure I was going to die before then.” Both Wirch’s sisters committed suicide when they were growing up. Four of her closest friends have also died by suicide. One hung herself in an alley using her dog’s leash. She was 11. Wirch’s mom put her to work in the sex trade before her 10th birthday. She ran away at 11, then bounced between the street and a long list of foster homes. One was a crack house. Two friends were stabbed to death in front of her, one with a machete. This is a North End childhood.

The area’s hospitalization rate for violence is almost seven times that of the wider city. Within a year, roughly 20 per cent of youth treated for violence will be back in hospital seeking treatment for another injury, says Carolyn Snider, an ER doctor at the core area Health Sciences Centre. In a 2013 story published in Wave, Winnipeg’s health and wellness magazine, Dr. Snider said: “If that same number was quoted for stroke or heart attacks or many of the other conditions we treat, there would be uproar.” Snider, who trained at the country’s two largest trauma centres in downtown Toronto, says she was utterly unprepared for the degree of violence she encounters daily in Winnipeg. Much of the violence is committed within the Aboriginal youth community itself. The two accused of the November assault of Rinelle Harper are Aboriginal. Just eight per cent of Aboriginal women are killed by strangers; the majority are murdered by their spouses or boyfriends (40 per cent), family members (23 per cent) or acquaintances (30 per cent).

Jon C, of the Winnipeg Boyz, calls theirs the “bruised generation”: two generations removed from residential schooling but still reeling from its effects. “My grandmother went to full-time residential school—the ones who were beaten and brainwashed,” he says. “My own mother never lived with her; she never learned how to look after me and my sister, to nurture us.” He remembers sitting through wild, all-night parties as a toddler. “I remember my eyes just burning because there was so much smoke.” He stole food to stave off hunger as a boy. For a while his bed was a sheet on a cement basement floor.

It’s this sorry state of affairs that leads many in the city to look down on the Aboriginal population, or to dismiss the North End as a Native-only problem.

Tyler Henderson, a 28-year-old Ojibway nursing student at the University of Manitoba, says he feels racism every time he walks out his front door. Henderson says Winnipeg police stopped him 15 times last year. “You fit the description,” police tell him when he asks what he did wrong. Once, police claimed he’d pulled to a stop a few inches beyond the stop line. “It makes me mad,” he says. “But there’s nothing I can do.” Some young indigenous men are stopped twice per month in the inner city, according to University of Manitoba criminologist Elizabeth Comack.

Photograph by John Woods

Rosanna Deerchild, a local indigenous writer and broadcaster, says that every few weeks she is harassed. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez. Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”

That’s just a reality of having brown skin in Winnipeg, says Jacinta Bear, who manages the North End Hockey Program. The youth program subsidizes registration fees for indigenous youth and gathers used equipment loaned to players for the season. “Our team has heard it all,” says Bear, whose husband, Dale, has coached the midget team for seven years. “Even opposing coaches and refs call our kids ‘dirty little Indians.’”

“Just keep smiling,” she tells the kids. “Don’t give them the reaction they’re after. There’s something not right in their lives and they’re taking it out on you.” Bear, 34, whose two sons both play for the Knights, takes pains to explain incidents like these are becoming less frequent. Still, these are “heartbreaking lessons” to teach eight-year-olds.

The problem is far more insidious than childish taunts. A few years ago, the federal government investigated claims that indigenous Winnipeggers were being denied housing due to discrimination. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation pulled together a random survey of Aboriginal renters. The results were damning. One in three told the CMHC that after showing up to visit an available suite they were told it had “just been rented.” More than 30 per cent felt they had been driven to neighbourhoods in the core, where the poverty rate and the incidence of crime more than doubles the wider city and jobs are scarce.

To Bartley Kives, the city’s top columnist, white privilege in Winnipeg isn’t about getting the best jobs or promotions. “It means not being worried your daughter is going to be raped and killed because of who she is.”

Winnipeggers engage in a bizarre “dance,” says city author and educator Joanne Seiff, who moved to Winnipeg in 2009 with her husband, a genetics professor. They are “aware and sensitive to race—as long as the person isn’t Aboriginal.” In 2009, shortly after arriving from Kentucky, she attended a neighbourhood potluck. There, some guests launched into a “scary diatribe” against the city’s indigenous population. Ironically, she adds, the conversation had actually begun when guests began lecturing her on the racism African-Americans face in the U.S. South. In polite society in the Peg, no one would dare speak ill of gays, Jews or blacks. But that’s not yet true of Aboriginals. Ross calls it “the final domino.”

Photograph by John Woods
The North End Hockey Program subsidizes registration fees for Aboriginal youth; its founders also hope to open a cooking school. (Photograph by John Woods)

Tyler Henderson visited Montreal recently. He felt like a weight had been lifted. Police ignored him. No one eyed him suspiciously walking down the street at night. He felt free.

Institutions are meant to be colour-blind. Last month, Manitoba released its report into the 2008 death of Brian Sinclair. The 45-year-old had sought treatment at the Health Sciences Centre (HSC) for a blocked catheter. Sinclair was Metis, with a host of health and social issues and a past history of substance abuse. He’d lost both legs to frostbite on a bitter February night the year before. His landlord had locked him out.

Although Sinclair initially spoke to a triage aide at HSC, he was never formally registered and was not seen by a nurse. As his condition deteriorated, he vomited repeatedly. Still, no hospital staff checked on him or asked if he was okay. A janitor who mopped up his vomit placed a silver bowl on the floor in front of his wheelchair. On four separate occasions concerned patients asked staff to check on him. None did. Finally, a security guard was prodded into checking on him by another patient. By then, 34 hours after arriving in hospital, Sinclair was dead. Rigor mortis had set in.

Many staff testified they’d believed Sinclair was homeless or intoxicated or “sleeping it off,” and not in need of care. Despite this, judge Tim Preston ruled last February that the inquest would not explore why those assumptions were made, nor how they might be avoided. The inquest would strictly focus on reducing wait times and hospital overcrowding. At that point, Sinclair’s family walked out. In December, they slammed the inquest as a wasted opportunity. “Stereotypes are at the root of why Brian was ignored for 34 hours,” said Brian’s cousin Robert Sinclair. “Those stereotypes have not gone away.”

Don Marks, a Winnipeg writer, recently visited an ER with an indigenous friend. They’d dropped a painting, and the broken glass had cut his friend. “Aw!” a nurse exclaimed in greeting them. “Have we been drinking and fighting again?” The nurse’s assumptions seemed harmless, says Marks, who edits Grassroots News, an Aboriginal newspaper—but they were not. “This was someone responsible for treating Native people in our hospitals. We all know racism exists in our health care system.”

Several Aboriginals told Maclean’s of occasions where they felt they were not treated fairly or quickly enough because of who they were. One, who had lacerations to his face, arms and skull, estimated losing one litre of blood while waiting up to three hours for treatment in a Winnipeg ER. He was given a towel to contain the bleeding. He believes he should have been seen by a physician immediately and might have, had he not been yet another young Aboriginal injured in a stabbing.

Understaffing and clogged waiting rooms cannot explain Sinclair’s death. The ER was fully staffed the day he died. Fully 17 staff members admitted seeing that he was there. And almost every angle of Manitoba’s well-documented wait-time problem had already been explored by government studies and media reports. To many Winnipeggers—at least to Aboriginal ones—this was yet another whitewash.

A few years ago, an inquest was held on the murders of two Aboriginal sisters who’d called Winnipeg police for help five times to their North End before they were fatally stabbed. Operators believed the women were intoxicated; police responded to the initial call, but didn’t return again for several hours. By then it was too late. An inquest into their murders blamed “poor training.” Racism and stereotyping were not considered.

Photograph by John Woods
Robert Falcon-Ouellette, director of the University of Manitoba’s Aboriginal focus programs. (Photograph by John Woods)

Other Western cities celebrate their First Nations heritage. Salish art covers the hoods of Vancouver’s police cars, strip malls, even its pothole covers. The Vancouver Canucks wear a Haida whale on their jerseys. Fin, their mascot, beats a Haida drum; and the team’s player of the game dons a Haida hat. Major indigenous art installations dot the city (the inukshuk at English Bay became the symbol for the Vancouver Olympics). The city’s airport houses the country’s most impressive collection of indigenous art, including Bill Reid’s Jade Canoe, once depicted on the $20 bill. In downtown Vancouver, a new public museum devoted to northwest coastal art recently opened. All of this is strikingly absent from Winnipeg, the indigenous heart of the continent, despite a flurry of new public buildings.

In September, roughly one kilometre downstream from the site Tina Fontaine’s body was discovered in the Red, the $351-million Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened at the Forks, the sacred confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. The 12-storey mountain of concrete and stone houses just two major exhibits directly addressing indigenous abuses. There are reflections on the indigenous experience elsewhere.

Alongside a treaty encased in glass there is no mention of the reality for Natives who agreed to its terms and resettled to reserves; there, they were barred from even leaving without apartheid-style “passes.” They slowly starved as the bison they relied on were wiped out. All this happened in the museum’s backyard.

“Colonialism didn’t just impact Aboriginal people,” says Perry Bellegarde, the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “It forever changed the way the European population on the Prairies would see Aboriginals as a problem, never a partner.”

It is no coincidence that on a huge range of metrics, the indigenous community is faring worse in Manitoba than any other province. Manitoba, for example, has the worst school attendance record among Aboriginal youth of any province or territory. And just 28 per cent of indigenous Manitobans living on reserve graduate high school, fewer than in any other province. An Aboriginal boy in Manitoba is more likely to end up in prison than graduate.

The province imprisons a higher proportion of its indigenous population than apartheid South Africa did its black population. Sixty-five per cent of inmates at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, a medium-security prison just outside Winnipeg, are indigenous, the country’s highest Aboriginal incarceration rate measured by jail. An indigenous Manitoban born tomorrow is expected to live eight fewer years than a white boy born in the province.

These are neither Aboriginal nor white problems, says Kives, who writes for the Winnipeg Free Press: they’re a Winnipeg problem. “Until everyone in the city understands that the health and well-being of the rapidly growing indigenous community is inextricably linked to the health of the city overall we have a big problem.”

In the next decade, one in three kids entering kindergarten in Manitoba will be Aboriginal, says Jamie Wilson, treaty commissioner for Manitoba. All those kids are going to enter the workforce, he adds. That cohort has the potential to shape the future of the province. To Wilson, the question is simple: does Manitoba want to create a skilled, educated workforce or an army of underemployed, undereducated indigenous youth dependent on government assistance and services? It’s an increasingly urgent concern when roughly 70 per cent of new jobs require some postsecondary education.

Wilson grew up shuttling back and forth between his northern Manitoba reserve and the beach: both his parents earned doctorates from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Ten years ago, after serving as a Special Operations Ranger in the U.S. Army, he returned to Opaskwayak Cree Nation, just outside The Pas, to serve as director of education.

He couldn’t keep qualified teachers on reserve. He doesn’t blame them: “If they drove a mile down the road to teach at a school in the provincial system, they’d earn $10,000 more per year.” The problems of underfunding have been well documented: federally funded reserve schools receive 40 per cent of the funding that non-reserve schools do, amounting to a per child gap of $2,000 to $3,000. Many reserve schools don’t have libraries. One in three doesn’t even have running water.

But since Tina Fontaine’s murder, the ground has suddenly begun to shift in Winnipeg. A vigil held in her memory was “one of the most remarkable and massive in Winnipeg’s history,” according to Niigaan Sinclair, who called it a “turning point” in ethnic relations. He’d never seen so many white faces at an Aboriginal event before. “Winnipeggers, for perhaps the first time, saw Tina as their own.”

“Somehow, she opened people’s eyes—[people] who’d been trying so hard to keep them shut,” says social activist Noëlle DePape.

The city certainly does not want for organizations trying to help indigenous Winnipeggers. But a new generation of remarkable young activists is taking matters into their own hands. Meet Me at the Belltower, a one-time rally to take back the North End, has become a weekly call to action: every Friday, families and young people gather at the Selkirk Avenue belltower in the heart of the North End to demonstrate against violence. The event was launched by Michael Champagne, a dynamic, 27-year-old TED Talk veteran never seen without at least a half-dozen young acolytes. Champagne is like the Pied Piper of the neighbourhood, empowering a generation of indigenous kids.

Every Sunday, Althea Guiboche, a Cree mother of seven known as “the bannock lady,” can be found feeding 300 hot chili and bannock meals on North Main. The Bears, meanwhile, are building on the success of the North End Hockey Program and hope to launch a program for teen girls and a cooking school for at-risk indigenous youth later this year.

Two months after Tina Fontaine’s vigil, almost to the day, Winnipeg elected Bowman mayor. Just before his official swearing-in, on Nov. 4, Bowman made a last-minute addition to his speech. He chose to open by acknowledging that council had gathered “on Treaty 1 land, and in the traditional territory of the Metis Nation,” a simple, but deeply moving nod.

Photograph by John Woods
Photograph by John Woods

It has become tradition when delivering a speech in Vancouver to acknowledge and give thanks to the Coast Salish, whose traditional territories cover the city; but this had never been done at Winnipeg City Hall before. The incoming mayor, a Jets fan who arrived in office with little but a game-used Mark Scheifele stick (he was scared his kids were going to put it through the living room window if he left it at home) was uncharacteristically emotional and choked up delivering the message.

“I see a real opportunity right now—with the level of engagement over these very serious and difficult issues—to make a difference,” Bowman told Maclean’s. “If my own family’s heritage can assist in building bridges in various communities in Winnipeg, then that’s an opportunity I fully intend on leveraging. I want to do everything I can.”

A month later, on Dec. 5, the city’s police chief, Devon Clunis, delivered more surprising remarks, calling on Winnipeggers to engage in a “difficult” conversation on the city’s ethnic divide. He asked residents to recognize white privilege, suggesting their “affluence” resulted from historic inequity. “Some people simply feel indigenous people choose to be a drunk on Main Street or they choose to be involved in the sex trade. No. We need to have those specific conversations—and try to understand why those individuals are living in those conditions.”

To Jamie Wilson, after Tina Fontaine’s death it was like “you couldn’t deny it anymore”—the racism, all the problems. He believes Winnipeg has begun confronting these head-on. “Right now, we’re stuck in a trap. We’re going to have to acknowledge it. Or it will forever hold us back.”

“Tina did this,” says Thelma Favel. “Tina opened even the government’s eyes. It had to take my baby to die for people to realize there was a problem—and there still is.”

Correction: The original version of this story stated that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg houses just two exhibits addressing indigenous abuses. In fact, the museum houses many exhibits that touch on the issue in various ways. (See letter below.) Maclean’s regrets the error.  

This article from February 2015 generated a great deal of reader response. Here are a few of the letters we received: 

Thank you! Finally the shameful story of racism in this country is being told. When I grew up in Northwestern Ontario, racism was overt and practiced in the schools, churches and community. The police were often the perpetrators of violence and injustices against the First Nations people upon whose land the gold mines in the area thrived. Although the situation there has improved, there still exists an undercurrent of inequality. Missing and murdered aboriginals is not a new story. It is merely one that is finally being told. I pray that your story on the situation in Winnipeg will be the start of an ongoing series exposing the ugly truth of the racism that exists elsewhere in Canada.

— Linda Lundstrom, Caledon, Ont.

I was very happy to read your article about Winnipeg and how it needs to change. It’s been long overdue. It’s disgusting how the aboriginals were/are treated in their own homeland. Coming from north Winnipeg as a Metis, I strongly agree with Nancy Macdonald’s article. And keep the good fight going. Ignorant people, get the hell outta the way. The world is changing.

— Brad Bruce, Winnipeg

Your January 22 story about racism in Winnipeg has created an opportunity for thought and conversation about one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. Unfortunately, the information relayed about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was incorrect. The museum houses dozens of exhibits that explore violations against Indigenous Peoples, along with stories of survival, resilience and hope (not just two).  An original copy of Treaty One is displayed as part of an exhibit about Canada’s legal traditions, intended to remind visitors of the commitments forged between First Nations and all Canadians. Several other exhibits located throughout the museum explore the devastating legacy of colonization for Indigenous Peoples, including the system of  “reserve passes” that once restricted their movement, Residential Schools,  child welfare, forced relocation the North, missing and murdered Aboriginal women, clean water on reserves, Métis resistance – and many more.

Far from minimizing the grave human rights violations that occurred in its own backyard (as your story suggests), the Museum is committed to education about these events, and about the ways people have worked towards reconciliation and positive change. Under a deliberate “decolonized” approach, stories designed to inspire thought, discussion and action for Indigenous rights can be found in every one of its 10 core galleries. Programs for school children and the general public have also been created to focus attention on Indigenous rights, developed in cooperation with Elders and others in the Indigenous community. As a new national institution dedicated to the promotion of human rights through education, our goal is to be a safe place for conversations from multiple perspectives – as a path towards a society free of racism where everyone can live together with dignity and respect.

— Gail Stephens, Interim President and CEO, Canadian Museum for Human Rights

I’m really insulted by someone calling my city racist. If you look at all the food banks and the many volunteers helping each other to make everyone else’s life a lot easier, you’ve got no right to call us racist. I’ve been here all my life and I’ve never  heard anyone treating anyone differently because of their nationality.

— Randy Kotyk, Winnipeg

 Of course Canada has racial problems, Canada has racists laws.  Canada’s laws are racial based, they depend on the race of your parents.  The U.S. no longer has laws only applicable to African-Americans. As long as Canada has laws applicable only to Aboriginal-Canadians we will continue to have race problems. Assimilation has proven a disaster, but why not a whole hearted try for integration?

— H. C. Bosman, Lethbridge, Alberta