Monthly Archives: December 2014

Reconciliation in the Classroom: Healing our Divided City

It’s that time again.  The end of another term that went by far too quickly. Once again, a great group of smart and engaged students made each class an interesting learning experience for us all.

Although I didn’t conduct a formal census, I would estimate that of  the 25 students registered, approximately 40 percent were Indigenous. Ages ranged from 17 years to upwards of 40 years. I should  also say that in spite of the stereotypes that would lead us to think otherwise, not all of the Indigenous students were from the inner-city and not all of the non-Indigenous students were from the suburbs.In fact at least one of the Indigenous students had never been to Selkirk Ave. before and one of the non-Indigenous students grew up in the neighbourhood.

There were many stories told in the classroom throughout the term and others shared in written assignments. Reclamation of culture became a central theme of our class discussions as students shared openly about their personal experiences. Some Indigenous students shared stories as second and third generation residential school survivors. Others talked of their experiences with the child welfare system including the devastation of being removed from their families during the 60s scoop. Some openly shared the shame they learned to feel – constantly being told that because they are Indigenous, they are inferior. They spoke of the long and painful journey toward reclaiming pride in their identities as Indigenous people.

At least two students in our class experienced homelessness and at least three had been wards of the State as children. At least two students spoke of past or current experiences with the criminal justice system while two other students spoke of their plans to become police officers. This made for some interesting discussion and, I believe, some changed attitudes. I was impressed with the two young man who chose to venture beyond their comfort zone to take a class in a neighbourhood where the police are often not trusted. I was even more impressed with the respectful way those students who have good reason to be suspicious of “cops” treated them.

As is the tradition, we spent the final class talking about what we learned and as always, I was impressed by the thoughtful and respectful dialogue. Given the diversity in our class this term, it would have been easy for discussions to turn tense but this was not the case. Students spoke honestly, openly, emotionally and respectfully.

Students were also asked to submit a brief paper reflecting on what they learned and here too they openly wrote about their experiences. The reflection of one student in particular moved me to tears. I asked her if I could post it here, offering to do so anonymously. She was genuinely thrilled to have her story told (with her name included).

Here is what Lisa Strong had to say:

In September, when I first started Introduction to Urban and Inner -City studies, I was very scared.  I walked in not knowing what to expect.  I came into the class, sat down and looked around.  I noticed that it was a mixed class–half Aboriginal and half Caucasian. This surprised me because I expected the population of Urban and Inner City Studies to be Aboriginal given the fact that it is located on Selkirk Ave.  I was very intimidated…

Professor Shauna MacKinnon started the class and on that first day everyone was very quiet. Shauna gave us a program outline of the course.  The topics and words that were used in the first class were very unfamiliar to me. I felt overwhelmed.  First, because I did not know the definitions and meanings of most of the words Second, because I felt like the Caucasian students in class would judge me and look down on me. And third, because I felt the Caucasian students would be so much smarter than I am and I would end up looking like a dumb Indian or Halfbreed.  

Later on, after class I spoke to Shauna and she reassured me that most of the students were probably feeling the same way.  I felt relieved and encouraged and was ready to give the class a chance and make a go of it.

As the weeks went by, we learned about gentrification in neighbourhoods and how it affects the individuals living in the communities. Many people end up getting pushed out of their neighbourhoods with nowhere to go. We learned about city planning and how much Winnipeg needs and spends to run the city.  We learned about urban sprawl and had discussions on how it would be a better idea for the city to fix the old roads in the North End than to pay for new infrastructure in the suburbs.  We watched the mayoral election and had discussions on what each candidate was promising and talked about whether they were actually the people they presented to be.

The strike of 1919 was also ver interesting to learn about.  It brought attention to the divide in the city at that time.  Wealthier people lived in the south end  of the city and the poor immigrant workers lived in the north end.  The difference today is that it is Native people who are more likely to live in the North End.

We had many discussions in class.  We learned to trust each other.  Each one of us had our own views but respected each other, even though many of us would never have talked to each other on the street if we had not met in class. Shauna made it a safe place and welcomed everyone’s opinions.  Now when I see my classmates at the main campus, it is funny because they will be standing with their friends when they see me and they’ll shout out  “HI!”  Then hey “high five” me in the hall while their friends stand there looking at them with a confused look. 

Over all I learned a lot about the city of Winnipeg and had a great time in class.

Lisa’s reflection was very powerful to me and I think more powerful than she knows. Lisa is far from the “dumb Indian” she feared her classmates would perceive her to be. She speaks to the significant impact that can come from bringing Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people with different social, economic and historical experiences together in a safe and trusting environment. This may be a small step toward healing our divided city, but it is a step that is making a difference for students, staff and faculty on Selkirk Avenue each day that we spend together.