Government Commitments

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

In its pain and its hope, Winnipeg is Canada’s most vital laboratory for reconciliation 

May 20, 2024

The Globe and Mail: SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL- Winnipeg

Over one week in mid-May, Winnipeg hosted an international gathering on Indigenous literature, a city-wide trade show for Indigenous youth, a national summit on Indigenous identity, a provincial conference to discuss Indigenous education, and Manito Ahbee – one of the largest indoor powwows in North America.

At the same time, the city also officially renamed several key streets to honour Indigenous histories and languages; the federal government announced a new “Red Dress” alert system, called for by Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan; the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented the world premiere of Tla’amin First Nation artist Cameron Fraser-Monroe’s T’əl: The Wild Man of the Woods.

And did I mention a sold-out $100,000 bingo fundraiser to support the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre in Winnipeg’s north end?

But then, of course, there’s the trial of Jeremy Skibicki, and the other face of the city. Mr. Skibicki has admitted to the murder of four First Nations women: Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran, Rebecca Contois and a woman known as Mashkode Bizhiki’ikwe. Police believe Ms. Myran’s and Ms. Harris’s remains reside in a nearby landfill. But the Winnipeg man, who is known to have spread white supremacist rhetoric on social media, is claiming to be not criminally responsible owing to mental illness.

Winnipeg is also at the centre of legal action filed by multiple First Nations. There’s the $1-billion lawsuit against the federal and provincial governments by Peguis First Nation, just 200 kilometres north of the city, for damages caused by repeated flooding in Lake Winnipeg. And there’s the nearly $5-billion lawsuit against all three levels of government by eight First Nations over the chronic depositing of untreated sewage into Manitoba’s river system – particularly a massive spill into the Red River in February.

This Indigenous-focused week is no aberration, though. It’s just another turbulent and complex period at ground zero for this country’s most terrible legacies and, very much relatedly, its most pressing issue: reconciliation.

In Winnipeg, the outcome of more than 150 brutal but also inspiring years of Indigenous and Canadian relationships are constantly playing out. One simply can’t cherry-pick a moment and call it Canada’s most violent or most racist city, because Winnipeg is also one of its most remarkable, inclusive and innovative places, at the exact same time.

Winnipeg is not some dusty statue sitting undisturbed on the mantle of Canadian history. It is an ever-evolving project – a city creating the change necessary for its future.

This is where events in support of Indigenous rights and land claims – two uncomfortable topics Canadians often work hard to avoid – are a regular occurrence.

This is where remarkable bravery and engagement can be witnessed, whether it’s through volunteer community patrols, applause at NHL and CFL games when Indigenous territorial acknowledgments are read, or the editing of memorials to include long-ignored communities.

This is where a provincial cabinet minister can be held to account for spreading falsehoods about residential schools, where a premier can be pressed to resign owing to his divisive views on Indigenous peoples, and where an intensely anti-Indigenous election campaign can produce the first First Nations provincial premier.

This is where red dresses float in neighbourhood windows, orange shirts are hung up in businesses and thousands attend an annual ceremony to honour the life of Tina Fontaine, a young First Nations woman lost to tragedy.

This is where one in five people are Indigenous, and just about every other Winnipegger is working with, living beside or married to an Indigenous person.

Canada’s future will be dictated by how meaningfully it engages with Indigenous nations. Indigenous peoples carry legal and constitutional rights that will determine every land or resource project, but they now also have the political and social capital to drive agendas.

And while much of the country is choosing to take a hard right politically – just look at today’s premiers – Winnipeg and Manitoba at large are providing a road map for how to meaningfully include, consult and work alongside Indigenous communities.

Over the five years I’ve spent as a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, I have documented how Canada’s policies and practices of racism have shaped the city, but also how nearly every citizen is engaged in reconciliation – not because it is a nice shirt one wears at the end of September, but because it’s become a way of life.

It’s not perfect by any means. But Wînipêk tells us much about where this country has been, and where it will go – if Canadians allow themselves to become comfortable with the contradictions.

NIIGAAN SINCLAIR

Niigaan Sinclair is a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press and the author of Wînipêk: Visions of Canada from an Indigenous Centre.