The Pallister Government and the Path to Reconciliation

On Friday May 26, I attended an impromptu event organized by supporters of the North Point Douglas Women’s Centre. The event was held to show support for the Centre, which was reeling from the news that it would not receive an expected $120,000 required for its operations. This represents one third of the Centre’s budget and losing it means that North Point Douglas Women’s Centre will be forced to cut important programs that are serving the community well. It got me thinking about reconciliation.

Indigenous women spoke passionately about the important role the Centre plays in their lives. They spoke about the culturally based programs that are helping them to heal from intergenerational trauma caused by government policies and programs like residential schools. As I listened to these women, it became clear that the Provincial government’s decision to cut funding for this and other community based programs serving high numbers of Indigenous peoples, is inconsistent with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 94 Calls to Action and Manitoba’s Path to Reconciliation Act.

The Path to Reconciliation Act defines reconciliation as “the ongoing process of establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in order to build trust, affirm historical agreements, address healing and create a more equitable and inclusive society. “ Among other things, it requires the Minister responsible to develop a strategy for reconciliation that “builds upon meaningful engagement with Indigenous nations and Indigenous peoples…”

I wondered, what the strategy was? Did Minister Clarke consult with Indigenous women in North Point Douglas before cutting funding to their Centre? Did the Minister consult with the many Indigenous women who use the services of the North End Women’s Centre, which has also been informed that it will receive less funding this year? And what about the many other services that have lost funding, or are waiting to hear of their fate, but are too nervous to talk about it? Most if not all of these organizations employ Indigenous people and serve large numbers of Indigenous people.

The Path to Reconciliation Act was introduced by the outgoing NDP government; it was given Royal Assent on March 15, 2016. On June 2nd, 2016 Eileen Clarke, the Minister of Indigenous and Municipal Relations addressed the House of Commons to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s executive summary and 94 Calls to Action. Clarke also reported to the House that the Pallister government, through the Department of Indigenous and Municipal Relations, would “proceed with work to implement the Path to Reconciliation Act.”

The Act requires the government to appoint a Minister responsible for developing a strategy that “builds upon meaningful engagement with Indigenous nations and Indigenous peoples”, creates a framework to advance reconciliation; establishes immediate and long-term actions that are responsive to “priorities and needs” of Indigenous nations and peoples, including those set out in the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission”; and “fosters the involvement of all sectors of society in the reconciliation process” and establishes transparent mechanisms to monitor and evaluate measures taken…”

Although light on detail, The Minister tabled a report on the Governments action to date in July 2016. Minister Clarke stated she looks forward to continued engagement of “all stakeholders to promote initiatives to advance reconciliation across all sectors of our society and continue to recognize the contributions of Indigenous peoples to the founding of Manitoba.”

As the minister responsible for Indigenous relations and the Path to Reconciliation Act, Ms. Clarke will know that a critical component of reconciliation is to close the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The TRC Commission Report outlines clearly what needs to be done.

In urban centres, the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is most notable in inner city and north end neighbourhoods where high numbers of indigenous people live. For example, upward of 40 percent of North Point Douglas residents identified as “Aboriginal” in the 2011 census – almost 4 times that of the City of Winnipeg. Fully 20 percent of Inner City residents are Indigenous and a high proportion live in poverty.

While addressing the 94 Calls to Action will require a far more grand response than funding small organizations, these non-profits can and do provide one means by which non-indigenous people can support reconciliation through our tax dollars.

The Pallister government keeps telling us we need to balance our books so that he can fulfill his promise to cut the PST. We need “all hands on deck” he tells us.

At a time when we are beginning to recognize the damages we have done, it is simply not okay to cut funding to organizations that are doing the important work that needs doing – work that is needed because of deeply damaging government policies. This is not a ‘path to reconciliation’.

Where to from here?

It is hard to know how the Pallister government plans to address the requirements of the Path to Reconciliation Act. Among other things, the Act requires the Minister responsible to “make recommendations to the government on financial priorities and resource allocation across the government in relation to reconciliation.“ In doing so, she/he must remember the high number of Indigenous people who continue to live in poverty in urban centres. In the spirit of reconciliation— in respect of the Act —they should be consulted.

This month Premier Pallister will ride his bike to Peguis First Nation to honour 200 years of the Selkirk Treaty as “a gesture of reconciliation”. This gesture will remain hollow, even insulting when stacked next to the funding cuts. The Premier needs to move beyond gestures and take action to fulfill his government’s obligations as outlined in the Path to Reconciliation Act.

This article by Shauna MacKinnon appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, June 8, 2017

Reconciliation through Experiential Learning: YouthUnited@Winnipeg

Like most large urban centres, Winnipeg is complex and in many ways divided. Geographically, Winnipeg has a long history of racial and class lines, with poverty and the problems poverty creates concentrated in inner-city and North End neighbourhoods.

Many Winnipeg residents, exposed only to negative stereotypes, are fearful of these neighbourhoods and rarely, if ever, spend time in them. It is also the case that many inner-city residents, especially those who are indigenous, feel safest in the inner city, where they are less likely to experience racism.

The University of Winnipeg’s Department of Urban and Inner City Studies, located in the heart of the North End on Selkirk Avenue, is creating a new bridge across this divide. Beginning on May 3, students from across the city are coming together in a safe and open learning environment where they can discuss the complex issues of our city and learn from each other.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg is a new pilot project funded by the City of Winnipeg. Twenty students from diverse cultural, inner-city and suburban backgrounds are beginning a unique four-month university program aimed at fully engaging in the process of reconciliation.

As described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), reconciliation requires “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples… In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behaviour.”

YouthUnited@Winnipeg puts reconciliation into action by bringing indigenous and non-indigenous students together in an experiential learning environment. Experiential learning means moving beyond academic theories. It is “learning by doing.” It challenges students to reflect on their experiences so that they not only develop new skills, but also question the attitudes and beliefs that can serve to perpetuate racial, geographic and class divides.

Community-based organizations are an important part of this new program. Students will have an opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom through paid work placements at different organizations in the inner city. Students will be exposed to different cultures and experiences and they will be challenged to more deeply understand the historical roots and contemporary contexts that serve to perpetuate our city’s divides.

The hope is that students interested in eliminating Winnipeg’s divides realize they have the power to participate in positive change through civic engagement.

Many U.S. cities have an “urban peace corps,” such as the City Year program, which invites young people to work in the inner city for the public good. When City Year representatives visited Winnipeg in 2014, they emphasized our city needed to create a youth service program. The University of Winnipeg and the city have now developed a “made-in-Winnipeg” model that can serve as an example for the rest of the country to replicate.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg is deeply inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report that calls for reconciliation to include “sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement.”

We cannot simply be tourists looking “in” and “at,” but people working “with” and “for.” Once students return to their neighbourhoods, they will be better prepared to challenge stereotypes when they encounter them. Students will gain a broader understanding of inner-city realities including resiliency, hope and strength.

The TRC reminds us that the journey toward reconciliation will be long and that collectively, we have much work to do. The TRC shows us the path forward. YouthUnited@Winnipeg, in a small and humble way, aims to follow that path.

Shauna MacKinnon is associate professor in the department of Urban and Inner City Studies at the University of Winnipeg. Brian Mayes is a city councillor, St. Vital Ward.This article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 24th, 2017.

Read more by Shauna MacKinnon and Brian Mayes.

Finding Faith in Humanity at Home

On December 12, 2016 housing and anti-poverty advocates gathered to recognize Clark Brownlee, a local activist who has long been engaged in social justice and policy advocacy. It was a much-needed reminder that there is still good in the world.

It has been difficult not to lose faith in humanity in a world where millions of people recently saw fit to elect Donald Trump as their nation’s leader. Many Canadians are watching in horror as a new political era begins to take shape south of the border. And it’s not just America that has seemingly gone mad. Racism in politics is rampant in Europe and Kelly Leitch has shown us that Canada is not immune. In her bid for leadership of the Conservative party, she has been vocal about her support for Trump and has pitched a number of racist policy proposals. She is currently a frontrunner.

So yes, it is hard to be hopeful at a time when hate and fear of “the other” seems to be inspiring a disturbing number of voters.

But there are glimmers of hope. Resistance continues to grow in the U.S. as Americans try to make sense of their new reality. The powerful demonstration of support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline shows that a growing number of people are deeply concerned about the environment and are fighting back against “big oil”.

There is hope at home too. Indigenous people are leading the resistance against pipeline expansion in Canada. Young activists like twelve-year old Autumn Pelletier from Wikwemikong First Nation are joining their parents and grand parents as they fight to protect our water.
Here in Manitoba there are a growing number of young people engaged in social, environmental and economic justice issues. There are also those like Clark Brownlee who have dedicated their lives to justice and they are rarely recognized for their work. Clark is a founding member of Manitoba’s Right to Housing Coalition. He recently retired after volunteering for 15 years as its coordinator.

This wasn’t Clark’s first retirement. He practiced as a social worker in Winnipeg for many years. After retiring in 2003, Clark chose to dedicate much of his time to advocate for housing for low-income people. Clark’s passion for social justice dates back to his early days as a social work student. In their book, One Hundred Years of Social Work : A History of the Profession in English Canada, 1900-2000, Therese Jennissen and Colleen Lundy identified Clark as one of a small minority of social workers taking a public stand to bring about social change in the 1960s. They quoted from a statement that Clark wrote in 1969, as a member of the Manitoba Association of Social Work Social Action Committee:

Social action is an integral, not an optional, part of our professional responsibility. Aside from the agency efforts at social action, our professional association has a role to play in the total decision-making process of our community. By applying a process of problem identification, goal setting, strategy definition, and implementation, based on understanding facts, and an applied sense of timing, we, though few in numbers, can bend and influence the direction of our society to make it a more humane place in which to live. To do less would be negligent (p. 261).

More than 45 years later Clark remains committed to social justice. And the “formula” he described in 1969 remains relevant today. Through his work with the Right to Housing Coalition, he has demonstrated that policy advocacy can have an impact, but it requires solid research, strategic planning, discipline and effective timing.

Thanks to Clark and the Right to Housing Coalition, hundreds of more Manitoba families now have safe and affordable housing. The Coalition has been diligent and disciplined in it advocacy efforts to ensure that more social housing is built and the existing supply is refurbished and maintained. The Coalition successfully lobbied the previous provincial government to focus on some clear social housing targets and timelines. To its credit, the NDP government met those targets. In collaboration with Make Poverty History Manitoba, and proponents of the community driven View From Here: Manitobans Call for a Poverty Reduction Plan, the Right to Housing Coalition lobbied the NDP government to increase income supports for low income earners renting in the private sector. The NDP government responded with the Rent Assist program.

None of these changes would have happened if not for the advocacy efforts of social justice policy advocates including Clark. We still don’t have enough housing for everyone who needs it, and far too many people continue to struggle to pay their rent. But we have made small gains as a result of this work.

It is difficult for progressives to be optimistic and for those of us who enjoy middle class lives, it would be easy to retreat. Clark is an inspiring example of someone who does not retreat—he has remained dedicated to making the world a better place. People like Clark don’t get a lot of public attention, mainly because they don’t seek it out. They are going about the slow and tedious work of policy advocacy quietly and humbly. It’s time consuming tedious work and all too often the only gratification comes from knowing that your tried your best.

But for the many life long social justice advocates like Clark Brownlee, none of this matters. They do it because they believe it is the right thing to do.

During this Christmas season, at a time of political chaos around the globe, stories about people like Clark should be shared. We need them to restore our faith in humanity.

A version of this post appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on December 20, 2016.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg—Reconciliation in Action

In March of 2016, Winnipeg City Council approved an allocation of funding for two years beginning in 2017 for the YouthUnited@Winnipeg initiative. Pending approval of the 2017 budget,YouthUnited@Winnipeg will commence in May 2017 at the University of Winnipeg, Selkirk Ave. campus.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg will provide university students an intensive, inner-city summer university credit/work experience program from May through August. We anticipate initial funding from the City of Winnipeg for two-years. In addition to academic instruction in non-traditional classrooms in diverse settings throughout the city, 20 students—half from the inner city and half from suburban neighbourhoods—will be matched with a community service organization where they will be paid through our program to work for 4 days each week. Working at a community service organization will give students the opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom, gain valuable work experience, and provide important services to the community through existing organizations.

The central theme of the work/study program will be reconciliation, drawing upon the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). We believe this to be important because the TRC highlights the importance of youth as leaders in the process of reconciliation.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg is a great fit for the UWinnipeg and in particular for the Department of Urban and Inner City Studies, because it allows us to extend beyond our pedagogical model, connecting scholarly learning to community practice and service in the spirit of reconciliation.

The department of Urban and Inner City Studies is unique, and in many ways, we believe we are ahead of the curve in that we have been providing for several years now, a learning experience that we would describe as “reconciliation in action”.

We are unique not because we offer our courses on Selkirk Ave., there are many other great education initiatives on the street, but because we aim to bring students from different socio economic and ethnic backgrounds from different parts of the city, to learn in a community that many in our city have been taught to fear. Students with privilege are challenged to think about how they have and do benefit from their privilege. Our experience is that students from privileged backgrounds learn a great deal from students who have lived in poverty and those confronted daily with the effects of colonialism. Our inner city students tell us that the experience is positive for them because they are learning in an environment that they are comfortable in and this creates a more level playing field.

Students come to Selkirk Ave. to take courses for different reasons. Some of our students choose to major in Urban and Inner City Studies. Some take one or two electives with us. Some students want to be social workers, lawyers, kinesiologists, city planners etc. Some wish to complete their degrees and find work in a community based organization so that they can to give back to the neighbourhood they grew up in. We have had students who plan to be police officers take Urban and Inner City Studies courses and they have been surprised by what they learn from their peers. For example, one year a young non-Indigenous student interested in a career in policing sat next to a young man who had recently been released from prison. Because our classes are small and we encourage learning through respectful dialogue, these two individuals engaged in some very interesting discussions and left with a different perception of each other. This we believe is reconciliation in action.

Regardless of their reasons for studying at Urban and Inner City Studies, we know that at the end of the term each of our students will leave with a very different perspective than that which they brought through the door. Our students from the Inner City meet students from other neighbourhoods and are sometimes surprised to learn that although they come from very different experiences and in many cases have far more challenges and barriers, they are not all that different in many ways—each student shares the hope of completing their education and living full and productive lives.

Many students who come to study with us from suburban neighbourhoods describe Urban and Inner City Studies as a ‘transformative experience’, that has helped them to unlearn many of the negative stereotypes they have of Indigenous peoples and the portrayals of the North End as a place to fear. Non-Indigenous students learn much from their Indigenous peers and Indigenous students find allies in many of the non-Indigenous students they meet.

Students who come to us from suburban neighbourhoods return to their communities with a very different perspective of Selkirk Ave. and the North End and they transmit this new perspective back to their families and friend. This we believe is reconciliation in action.

Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students from across the city are building bridges across our communities and beginning to break down the divides that we know exist in our city. It is this experience that we will build upon through the YouthUnited@Winnipeg initiative.

YouthUnited@Winnipeg aligns well with Mayor Bowman’s designation of 2016 as a “year of reconciliation” as well as the City’s recognition that our city remains divided by racism. We are very pleased that YouthUnited@Winnipeg was identified in the 2016 City of Winnipeg budget as a two-year pilot program to begin in 2017 and we are pleased the Mayor and Council have agreed to provide us with bridge funding so that we can do the work required in preparation for May 2017.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls upon Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to be part of the process of healing and moving forward. It emphasizes that reconciliation requires “sustained public education and dialogue, including youth engagement.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission describes the importance of reconciliation at the community level, “where contact between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is often minimal or marred by distrust and racism” (TRC 2015: 210).

This is what we aim to do through YouthUnited@Winnipeg.

Putting Reconciliation to Practice: Manitoba Election 2016 and Wab Kinew

Elections have become increasingly nasty in the age of social media. We are currently seeing this play out in Manitoba and in particular for well known Fort Rouge candidate Wab Kinew.

I have little tolerance for the misogynistic, homophobic words Kinew communicated in past years through music and social media. But I am also troubled by the implications of reacting, in  in haste to words and actions that have long been apologized for by a man who has more recently demonstrated through concrete actions, that he has grown and changed. A man who has taken responsibility for his past and who now speaks out against misogyny, homophobia, racism and other acts of hate and abuses of power. And perhaps most important, an Indigenous man who has become an important role model to many Indigenous youth.

As a non-Indigenous Canadian I believe that we are at an important crossroads. How we respond in this situation is a reflection on what we understand our role to be in the much discussed process of reconciliation, as described in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. There are those who have been quick to condemn Kinew and express suspicion of his intentions; others have been more reflective. Nobody I’ve spoken with condones Kinew’s past behaviour. But because people have seen a different Kinew in recent years, many are trying to make sense of how this intelligent, articulate young man could have said such terrible things.

Answers to our questions can be found in Wab’s book, The Reason You Walk. Kinew openly shares his personal experience as the son of a residential school survivor. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, thousands of residential school survivors and their families shared similar painful stories describing the intergenerational impact that residential schools have had for their families. This cannot have been an easy thing to do. Many did so for their own healing, but also in hope that non-Indigenous people would understand the serious and long-term damage done and move beyond apology to action. Through this process, Indigenous people have opened painful wounds in hope that the Government of Canada and non-Indigenous people are sincerely “sorry”.

As described in the TRC report, “the residential school system…was racist and discriminatory, bringing about a form of cultural oppression and personal shame that has had a lasting effect not only on those who attended the schools but also on subsequent generations.” The Commission describes reconciliation to be “about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behavior.”

So what does this have to do with Wab Kinew?

Wab Kinew’s story is an example of the intergenerational impact of residential schools. This doesn’t let him off the hook for what he has said and done in the past. Not all residential school survivors are misogynist or homophobic; such views transcend race, class, culture and experience. But I believe we need to consider the context that has led many Indigenous people to experience deeply rooted feelings of shame, self-hatred and anger – anger that is often projected toward others.

The TRC report asserts, “…reconciliation begins with each and every one of us.” The fact that Kinew has taken responsibility for his misdirected anger suggests that he is on a path to reconciliation. We have a responsibility to support him and others on that journey. Non-Indigenous people, like me, can start by understanding the deeply damaging effects of policies and programs, such as residential schools. Reconciliation requires that we participate in a process of healing and societal transformation. It also means sending a message to Indigenous youth that we are serious about change going forward. Many of these youth are watching to see how we are responding to Wab Kinew.

The TRC reminds us that the legacy of residential schools lives on. There is an overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the care of the child welfare system and a disproportionate victimization of Indigenous women and girls. Far too many Indigenous people live in poverty, drop out of school, find themselves incarcerated, struggle with addictions, are unemployed—and the list goes on.

This reality has led to an alarming number of Indigenous youth responding through self-harm and suicide. Many Indigenous youth are desperately seeking hope. Wab Kinew and other young Indigenous leaders like him represent this hope. Kinew talks openly about his own painful past and destructive behaviours. He encourages Indigenous youth to be proud of their indigeneity and to pursue their dreams. He also knows that systemic changes are needed and he actively advocates for Indigenous rights and policy reforms.

By not accepting Kinew’s apology, by not giving him an opportunity to lead, we send a dangerous message to Indigenous youth­—that people won’t allow them to change.

Wab Kinew is making the right decision to continue as the NDP candidate in Fort Rouge and Mr. Selinger is doing the right thing to support him. This sends an important message to Indigenous youth. As we move forward, we will hold Wab Kinew accountable for present and future actions. And in the spirit of reconciliation, just as we expect Indigenous people to forgive us for our past mistakes, we must forgive Kinew for his.

 

 

 

 

Community-Based Programs and Poverty Reduction

The UWinnipeg Urban and Inner City Studies program, where I teach, is located on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End. A large number of our students have grown up poor. Some have not known anything but poverty. Others come from the suburbs to learn about urban and inner city issues from a different perspective. The diversity in our classrooms leads to some very interesting discussions.

Last week one of my students spoke about her experience growing up in the North End. She described the difficult realities of growing up in a poor neighbourhood, but she also described the importance of the many community-based programs that helped her through. She said if not for these programs, she would not now be in university. It was a powerful presentation by an intelligent young woman who is now thriving in university with a bright future ahead of her in spite of many challenges.

A few days later I read the Winnipeg Free Press editorial responding to the 2015 Campaign 2000 Child and Family Poverty Report Card (Selinger gives poor answer to bad report card on poverty, November 25, 2015). The report card shows Manitoba to be doing particularly poorly compared with other provinces. This is disappointing news and the reasons for this need to be further investigated so that we can know better who is poor, where poverty in Manitoba “lives” and what different levels of governments should do. For example, we know that Aboriginal people are over-represented among those who are poor and federal government support in Manitoba’s First Nations is abysmal – something the Report Card did not acknowledge.

But aside from the discussion about poverty itself, it was a particular statement in the editorial that I found especially troubling. The editors note that “the Selinger government has become adept at shipping tax dollars to a variety of community groups and organizations.”

It isn’t the first time that the Free Press has advanced the narrative that too much money is being spent on community-based programs. In 2014 Mary Agnes Welch (Generosity doesn’t solve poverty, December 17, 2014), criticized the Selinger government for its support of the so called “poverty industry,” and stated that “many of these programs overlap. There is little measurement of outcomes, so we don’t know what really works.” I’m not sure what measurement Ms. Welch is looking for, but I propose that my student is an example of an important outcome and I know there are many others like her.

It is also ironic that while the criticizes the funding of community-based organizations, they have also often written extensively about the need to take action to prevent crime, homelessness and other social issues related to poverty. There seems to be consensus about the need for more recreation and afterschool programs for children and families living in poverty.

So how do these critics of government funding for community-based organizations think prevention happens? As my student very eloquently described from her personal experience, this is what community-based organizations do. Why wouldn’t we want our governments to financially support this work? And if they don’t, how do we expect organizations to provide these services? Do we think these services can and should be run by volunteers? Who are these volunteers with the time and resources to work for no pay?

It is true that there has been too much downloading of services to the community. But this trend began long before the Selinger government. It aligns with the ideologically inspired retrenchment of the state that emerged in the 1980s. I propose that we are all to blame for the growing poverty by our acceptance of the idea that governments can do more for less and that we are all better off if we pay less tax. The backlash against the NDP for the 1-percent increase in the PST is a case in point.

Yes, the NDP government could be doing much more to address poverty. Yes, income assistance should be raised and all 52 of the recommendations put forward by Make Poverty History Manitoba should be implemented. Poverty is complicated and comprehensive solutions including increased income, accessible childcare, housing, access to early learning programs, literacy and long-term training and education and many other services are needed.

But to criticize the Selinger government for choosing to invest in community organizations doing prevention work makes no sense. I’ve been an anti-poverty activist in this city for 20 some years. I see poverty every day. There is no one angrier than I am that we’ve yet to alleviate poverty. But to suggest that community based organizations are a waste of money, which is the logical conclusion to the statement made in the Winnipeg Free Press editorial and previously by Welch is wrong- headed.

Alleviating poverty is a long-term proposition that requires multiple interventions.

Community- based organizations are not going to solve poverty on their own, that’s for certain. But they are one part of the solution and they should be adequately funded to do their work.

My student is testament to this. She is still living in poverty— a living and breathing example of the very disappointing statistics. But she is also well on her way to getting out of poverty. And the many community organizations that supported her as a youth are one reason why.

A version of this post was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on December 4, 2015.

Inclusive Urban Development and Poverty Reduction: Learning From Innovative Practice

The April 2015 issue of Universitas Forum titled “Inclusive Urban Development and Poverty Reduction: Learning From Innovative Practice” is the result of a collaborative project led by myself and Sara Swartz, Director of the Universitas Programme of the KIP International School (Rome, Italy), made possible with a grant from the International Development Research Centre. The project is part of a broader collaboration between the KIP International School, University of Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, Province of Manitoba, the Manitoba Research Alliance and several community based partners. The purpose of this collaboration is to bring together local and urban development practitioners, government representatives and academics from around the world to share lessons learned and develop new strategies toward inclusive development and poverty reduction.

15strt meet_raipur

This special issue journal aligns well with our knowledge mobilization aims. It allows us to present a variety of successful experiences of inclusive urban development that have addressed the different dimensions of poverty as they are lived in diverse urban settings. These experiences come from very different developmental and cultural contexts: Senegal, Uganda and Zimbabwe in Africa; Bangladesh and India in Asia, Winnipeg, Canada, Mexico, Colombia and Peru in Latin America. But whether in the inner city of Winnipeg or the slums of Delhi, the experiences show that residents of poor, spatially concentrated areas of cities experience similar challenges – low income, low levels of employment, lack of housing and access to services, violence, low rates of education. They also show that poor communities have valuable knowledge about their problems and potential solutions.

In fact, despite the challenges, there are many innovative examples of community organizations, researchers and local governments collaborating to improve social and economic outcomes for those currently living in poverty, and also, in some cases, to address the structural inequality at the root of the problem. The need is to build on these individual success stories to identify more comprehensive solutions.

In the struggle to scale up their actions, gain recognition, influence public opinion, orient policy and spending, influence academic teaching and transform practice, local groups, however, face many barriers. Among these is the lack of time and resources to systematize work done at local level, often by small community organizations, draw lessons for the future and to share them, first and foremost with other key local actors. The case studies and videos presented in this issue of Universitas Forum were developed through the project “Innovative practices of inclusive urban development and poverty reduction”, funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada. The project was designed to identify and support the documentation and dissemination of innovative local practices and to produce recommendations to improve practice and contribute to policy formation relevant to poverty reduction. We also wanted to strengthen strategic alliances between researchers and actors engaged in poverty reduction and inclusive urban development in a variety of contexts.

Similar problems from different perspectives
Running through the different experiences presented in this issue are several common themes and similar approaches. Each of them highlights, among other things, community-driven solutions to complex problems.
Access to land, housing and control of property rights is fundamental to ensuring safe and permanent housing, children’s education and access to livelihoods for vast numbers of people, especially women, living in informal urban settlements. This is the theme of the case study and video produced by the Zimbabwe Parents of Handicapped Children Association based on their experience in the urban slums of Harare. As mothers of children with handicaps, they face multiple barriers: abandoned by husbands and families, objects of discrimination and violence and with no property or means to earn a living, these women were forced to live a nomadic life. Their success story is based on the awareness of their legal rights, their capacity to organize and to advocate constructively with local authorities, traditional leaders and other stakeholders. In their view, moreover, “the presence of women in public offices makes it easy for grassroots women empowerment programmes to be effective, efficient and sustainable”.
Rights to land title and municipal services in poor urban areas are also at the centre of the experience of participatory planning as part of the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) Scheme in Raipur and Gangtok, India. RAY is a government programme aimed at correcting the deficiencies of formal urban planning that has not created inclusive conditions for poor urban families. Instead, they “are forced to create encroachments and slums and lead extra-legal lives in deprived conditions”. The experience recounts community engagement in planning urban development projects in two municipalities in India, as part of the RAY scheme. The process is presented through the lens of two young planners working for RAY who learned that simple solutions to complex problems are often easily identified by creating the opportunity for community members to engage their knowledge and experience in government-led urban development processes. They also learned, though, that such participatory processes require time, patience and the willingness of politicians and bureaucrats to shift their plans and priorities according to people’s demands and aspirations; the alternative is disengagement and loss of confidence in the institutional process, and poorly planned cities.

Colombia is another country that has seen a rapid and unplanned increase in the urban population, many of whom are living in precarious settlements. It is also a country that has been plagued by violence with many of these new city dwellers displaced from rural areas as a result of the violent conflict over the past 40 years. This is the context for the experience in Bogotà realized by TECHO, a community organization that has focused on developing social infrastructure – roads, bridges, community centres – in neglected communities in ways that facilitate community empowerment, social cohesion and improved relations between institutions and the members of the communities themselves. The author underlines how the process of participation is incremental, expanding step by step as community members are empowered, see concrete results and identify new projects, thus developing more complex responses to their needs as the process progresses. In their experience this empowerment begins with local citizens who build the vision of their communities and local government that supports and facilitates them, “ so that they feel closer to institutions and the state….. that they are citizens”.

Colombia and India are the settings for two other experiences that address housing issues from a different perspective, that of self-construction practices. The action research experience in Delhi, India presented by Micro Home Solutions (mHS) was addressed to poor and low-income households resettled by government as part of slum eviction programs. These families are usually given tiny empty plots of land in city suburbs with unclear legal titles. Self-construction is a common practice, but as these households usually comprise workers in the informal sector who are unable to access mortgage documents, they are thus unable to afford construction loans or design assistance. The authors show how a combination of actions including facilitating access to micro-credit, individual technical design assistance to owners, sensitizing community members and training local masons on safe construction practices and advocacy with government and international agencies has led to positive results. Among these have been important proposed policy changes to the microfinance sector, to allow microfinance institutions to offer housing loans to homeowners with right to possession even if they do not have full property title and to increase the lending cap from Rs 50,000 to Rs 500,000.

COMFAMA is a private non-profit workers compensation fund in the Department of Antioquia, Colombia. The author describes the experience of a major housing upgrading program for low-income families in the municipality of developed with multiple stakeholders, including COMFAMA itself, private companies and the municipalities of the Department of Antioquia. As in the other cases, access to small loans for families without legal property title is a major problem, and thus the provision of loans to these families from COMFAMA was strategic. Given the scale of COMFAMA’s intervention, by combining provision of affordable loans, technical assistance to homeowners, negotiating prices with a network of local suppliers of building materials, the program was able to improve the living conditions of 13,571 families, revitalize the local economy and generate more than 40,000 jobs in the construction sector, mostly in the informal sector. From a more qualitative viewpoint, the author recounts the benefits of home improvements for health and sanitation, greater privacy, and simply more attractive housing that increases families’ sense of self-esteem and belonging. Moreover, the value of the homes increased and thus improved the families’ assets.

Violence, and particularly, youth violence is the theme of the case study from Lima, Peru. Youth are both the object and subject of the experience of “Peace Defenders”, a pilot initiative in a poor neighbourhood of San Juan de Lurigancho in Lima, characterized by many forms of violence including gangs. This experience focused on building youth leaders as “peace defenders” through working on their individual and collective capacities and self-esteem to address the underlying factors that make them vulnerable to violence, such as poverty, social exclusion, precarious housing, mental health issues and other factors often associated with constant migration. The experience adapted and innovated existing participatory approaches such as community safety mapping and social photography. The importance of this experience, in the eyes of the author, is not only in addressing the social stigma associated with poverty and exclusion that makes youth more vulnerable to violence; it lies in the ability to see the community through the eyes of its youth and to understand the many factors that contribute to the cycle of poverty and violence they live with. Thus it provides a vital lens, including a gender lens, for public policy and intervention aimed at addressing the multiple risks of poor and vulnerable communities.

The contributions from Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) illustrate that poverty exists even in countries viewed across the world as places of wealth and opportunity. Complex challenges such as income inequality, poverty, social exclusion, and urban decline persist in Winnipeg, but are also being addressed with comprehensive, long-term, multifaceted, and integrated approaches that are community led—through an approach referred to as Community Economic Development (CED). CED organizations have become a force for neighbourhood resilience, poverty reduction and building human capacity and hope, while creating more sustainable livelihoods and communities for many in the city.

While poverty in Canada affects people from all backgrounds, Indigenous people continue to fare poorly on a number of social and economic indicators when compared with non-Aboriginal Canadians. The reasons are complex, but are in part attributable to colonial policies that have left a legacy of despair and distrust, particularly in the education system. The experience of creating an intergenerational educational hub in Winnipeg’s inner city was born through collaboration among community-based organizations, post-secondary education institutions, local governments and others committed to building a holistic education model that provides opportunities for Aboriginal people and other multi-barriered residents. In addressing needs for education and employment sensitive to the specific cultural context of the local community, the hub is also contributing to revitalizing the neighbourhood where it is located, providing much needed affordable housing and generating economic recovery.

Also in Winnipeg’s north end, activists and social entrepreneurs, guided by CED principles, are creating social enterprises that generate employment and work toward changing the character of the neighbourhood. Two recent projects from the city’s North Main Street illustrate that ambitious urban renewal projects are possible and that there are diverse ways of using CED principles to achieve community vitalization, including through strategic renovation of historic buildings for community infrastructure. The initiatives described in “Our Hearts on our Streets” show how these and other community driven initiatives are creating opportunities by building a network of interconnected and socially responsible businesses and services dedicated to the health and well-being of Winnipeg’s most vulnerable individuals and neighbourhoods.

While women are disproportionately represented among the urban poor and bear the burden of being impoverished, many dynamic and energetic grassroots women’s groups are leading the initiatives to transform that reality, for themselves and their communities. For example, the relationship between urban violence and women’s economic empowerment is the theme of the action research experience from Aquiles Serdán, Chihuahua in Mexico. The author, director of the action research centre Bufete de Estudios, illustrates the process of creating a Centre for Solidarity-based Economy for Grassroots Women (CENESO, acronym in Spanish) in the municipality. The premise was that by encouraging women’s financial autonomy and improving the financial situation of their families this would also have a positive impact on preventing violence against women. The author describes the participatory process of constituting the Center that involved an innovative use of several tools such as workshops on the participatory design of the centre and on solidarity-based economy; community safety audits, a grassroots organizations’ academy and local-to-local dialogues. The process, facilitated by Bufete de Estudios Interdisciplinarios AC, brought together grassroots women from Aquiles Serdán and surrounding municipalities; the municipality and pertinent state government programmes and also points to collaboration between grassroots organizations and institutions as the key to its consolidation and future sustainability, as well as the facilitating role played by the innovative research process itself.

Improved livelihoods and women’s empowerment are the main themes of the video and case study of the Home-based Care Alliance in the periphery of Kampala, Uganda in the urban slum of Mbuya Parish. Theirs is the story of a social movement of grassroots women and men, themselves infected by HIV, who provide home-based care for people with HIV/AIDS in their community. Their experience highlights the strength of grassroots women organizing collectively and advocating with government to improve the provision of care, access formal training and recognition as caregivers, improve their collective incomes, the health and sanitation of their community and strengthen their political participation. Their success story is based on their capacity for dialogue with local government using the local-to-local model promoted by the Huairou Commission network and their inventiveness with a variety of income-generating activities such as kitchen gardens, mushroom growing techniques in small spaces to generate income and contribute to collective mechanisms for savings and credit.

Local economic development is also the theme of the case study exploring how harnessing traditional knowledge about artisan production of leather goods has driven the local economy in the Commune of Ngaye Mékhé in Senegal and combatted poverty. The author shows how, in the face of mass importation of foreign products made of synthetic materials, enhancing this value chain specific to the local culture, history and know-how of the territory linked to leather has generated an entire system. This system has had a multiplier effect on the local economy, has increased family incomes, had an important impact on women’s economic empowerment and generated significant revenue for the local public budget, in turn leading to improved services and quality of life, and a more attractive and vibrant territory in general, with its shops, ateliers, cooperatives, micro-finance institutions and services.

Drawing lessons
What can we learn from these experiences? Drawing on the lessons indicated by the authors, some common themes emerge for policy and practice:
• The best solutions are community-driven. All the cases illustrate that poor communities have valuable knowledge about their problems, the structural limits they face and potential solutions. Harnessing the knowledge that exists in poor communities leads to the most appropriate solutions to often very complex problems. The cases also illustrate the fundamental importance of collective action in making marginalized voices heard, in demanding fulfillment of rights and in bringing about necessary change.
• Still, without the partnership and support of government, including by committing the needed resources, community actions have little chance to scale up and become sustainable in the medium to long term. Governments should enable and support community-led processes. Methods such as local-to-local dialogues, as promoted by the Huairou Commission, are useful means of facilitating constructive dialogue and collaboration between community groups and public institutions.
• Participation, however, is an incremental process and needs to be nurtured over time and lead to concrete benefits for communities. The different experiences recounted in this issue refer to tools such as women’s safety audits, mapping exercises, street-corner meetings, social photography and other methods designed to facilitate the participation of even the most excluded groups in planning and decision-making. Such experiences are based on the recognition that participation should be an empowering process and that mass meetings or consultations with organizational representatives, without other deeper participatory processes, are unlikely to engage and empower such groups.
• Research can play a facilitating role. In developing several of the experiences presented here, research has had a determining role. Not only have researchers documented and analyzed existing processes, they have been directly engaged with local actors in conceptualizing and accompanying new initiatives, facilitating participatory processes and have contributed to innovations that have produced positive benefits. This has required adopting “hybrid” methods such as partnership research, participatory action research, participatory mapping, safety audits and others where researchers work with local actors in a process of co-construction, analysis and advocacy work.
• The best solutions are complex, addressing the multiple dimensions of poverty and the underlying factors. Whereas, all the cases published here have a thematic focus, in reality these are just entry points to a broader process of local poverty reduction. They show that education, violence reduction, local and community economic development, community vitalization, housing, urban planning, access to property and economic assets are all intricately related and cannot be addressed effectively in silos.
• Networks. An important opportunity comes from participating in international networks. Several of the experiences, such as that of ZPHCA in Zimbabwe, Mbuya Home-based care alliance in Uganda, CENESO in Mexico and the CED experiences in Winnipeg are part of national, regional and international networks. Networks facilitate peer learning and dialogue, exchanges of experiences, practices and instruments beyond providing opportunities to bring local experiences and lessons into the policy arena at international level.

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.

About the Divide: It’s Complicated

Winnipeg’s divide is far more complex than Bartley Kives suggests in his article “High hopes for first indigenous Winnipeg Mayor.”(Winnipeg Free Press Saturday October 25).

Having a self-identified Métis Mayor will undoubtedly dispel many of the negative stereotypes about Indigenous people that continue to be far too prevalent in our city. Our first openly gay mayor certainly had this effect on homophobia. In fact, my somewhat conservative Catholic mother changed her views about homosexuality in part because of Glen Murray. She held him in very high regard and came to understand that his sexual orientation was irrelevant. I’ve always attributed a big part of my mother’s instant openness and acceptance of my gay brother to her seeing a progressive openly gay male as a civic leader and role model.

But the divide that Kives refers to is far more complicated, and Bowman identifying himself as Indigenous will not be enough to bridge it.

The geographic distribution of the vote tells us an important story about this divide. Our city is, as it has always been, deeply divided by class. Much of the north of the city came out in support of Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the left leaning candidate, while the south and other suburbs came out in support of the Conservative-aligned Chamber of Commerce candidate. Robert-Falcon Ouelette, who ran a high-spirited, passionate campaign that was often portrayed as “left” but was in fact ideologically more libertarian at times, garnered most of his support in the core area of the city. It is notable that the distribution of votes in 2014 was not that different than in 2010. Judy Wasylycia-Leis was the clear choice of voters in the inner city and north end of the city, while Sam Katz had a firm grasp on the south. So in spite of all the hype about ‘change’, nothing much has changed, at least in this respect.

The CJOB/Global Insightrix poll tells another important story about our city’s divide. While clearly underestimating Bowman’s lead, it provided some insight into the socio-economic status of decided voters.

50% of voters with household earnings less than $30,000 chose Judy Wasylcia-Leis as their preferred candidate, while another 38% of households earning moderate incomes between $30,000 and $60,000 also proclaimed support for Judy.

Not surprisingly, Bowman, the Chamber of Commerce-affiliated candidate, was the preferred choice of 50 % of decided voters earning between $90,000 and $120,000 and 53% of those earning more than $120,000.

So what about the Indigenous divide?

In spite of the stereotypes, not all Indigenous people in our city are poor and not all live in the inner city and North End. There is a growing number of middle-class Indigenous people across city neighbourhoods. But many Indigenous people are poor and many continue to fall behind. The inner city and north end of Winnipeg, where Bowman’s support was weakest, is home to a high proportion of Aboriginal people, many who struggle to survive on a daily basis.

There is little in Brian Bowman’s campaign platform that speaks to this divide.

Brian Bowman did not run a campaign on Indigenous issues, and he did not run as an Indigenous candidate. His emphasis has always been on ensuring that Winnipeg is a city that is “open for business.” It is this focus that garnered the support of high profile Conservative leaders and the business community and it is this focus that led to his success in the south end of the city and the outlying suburbs.

If Bowman wants, as he says, to “build bridges between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal community,” he will have to acknowledge the socio-economic and geographic divide as well. He will need to focus on the issues that matter to poor people, a high percentage of whom are Aboriginal and live in the inner city and North End where his support was the weakest. Mr. Bowman will need to reach out to the inner city to show that he is more than just the Chamber of Commerce Mayor. This means that he will need to include in his agenda policies and programs that speak to the needs and interests of the disenfranchised, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who supported other candidates or did not vote at all.

Mr. Bowman will need to take leadership on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children. He will need to expand recreational opportunities for marginalized inner city youth. He will need to commit to increasing the supply of low-cost housing. He will need to recognize that while increasing the number of people downtown is good for our city, this alone won’t make our downtown safer and it doesn’t address the root causes of crime. While these are not issues outlined in his platform, he can make them a priority if he chooses to. But this will be a challenge for Mayor Bowman, who has promised a two percent cut to all department budgets with the exception of fire, paramedics and police, while also making big ticket promises that will have little benefit to inner city residents.

Now that he has been proclaimed the “first Indigenous Mayor,” there will be high expectations from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Winnipeggers who have long been concerned with racism as well as the geographic social and economic divide in our city.

This article appeared on the Winnipeg Free Press Online edition – November 1, 2014

 

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/The-Winnipeg-divide-is-complicated-281096112.html?utm_content=bufferd28c5

 

 

 

 

 

Fixing our Divided City: Lessons from Youth and Elders

The Winnipeg Free Press headline “A City Divided” and the revelation that “75 percent of Winnipeggers believe the division between the aboriginal and non- aboriginal communities is a serious issue” doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us working in the inner-city, and it certainly won’t surprise Aboriginal people. But it is refreshing to see that Winnipeggers are finally ready to talk about it.

There is no quick fix – systemic racism runs deep. But for non-Aboriginal people who sincerely want to ‘do something’ about the divide, they can begin by venturing out of their comfort zone.

In many ways, youth have been leading the way on this issue.

Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO) is a prime example of Aboriginal youth taking the lead to raise awareness issues they are concerned about. They are building their leadership skills, speaking out about racism, poverty, violence against Aboriginal women and children, and host of important issues. They are making a very real difference in our community and quickly becoming the leaders of tomorrow.

Another example of youth engaging in change occurred in 2012 when a group of thirty some high school students participated in a project we called “fixing our divided city”.

“Fixing our Divided City” was part of the annual State of the Inner City Report project coordinated by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Through several conversations with many community partners, it occurred to us that while our city remains deeply divided, and solutions are complex, much can be done by tapping into the wisdom of Aboriginal elders and the optimism and hope of youth.

The basic idea was simple. Fixing our divided city requires non-Aboriginal people and in particular those in the suburbs where ‘fear’ is greatest, to venture beyond their comfort zone—to have conversations with Aboriginal people in Aboriginal spaces. Circle of Life Thunderbird House, located on the corner of Higgin and Main, immediately came to mind. We wondered—how many non-Aboriginal Winnipeggers have visited Circle of Life Thunderbird House? This beautiful sacred space designed by internationally renowned Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal is an ideal venue for bringing diverse groups together in an Indigenous setting. Full of light, with the evocative smell of sage, it envelopes you in a sense of peace and timelessness. Thunderbird House invites reflection and respect, and we wanted it to be part of our plan to bring people together.

Thanks to the willingness of a small group of innovative and open minded teachers and youth mentors, we started with a series of workshops with youth from the North End CEDA Pathways to Education program, College Beliveau and Grant Park High School. We talked with the students about their perceptions of the inner city. They shared with us their views about poverty and racism. We talked about their hopes for the future and what they believed can be done to make the world a better place. We viewed a film capturing discussions with Elders, who they would later meet. The Elders talked about their experiences growing up as Aboriginal youth and the lessons they wished to share with young people.

We then brought the thirty youth, their teachers and mentors together at Thunderbird House with the elders they met through video. It was a full day of learning and sharing on a sunny fall Saturday afternoon. What transpired throughout the day was nothing short of inspiring.

The Elders shared teachings with the youth and the group was invited to share their thoughts and ideas in a traditional sharing circle format. There was laughter and tears, hugs and smiles as youth shared their thoughts and feelings about social issues as they perceived them. They listened intently to the Elders stories and some youth chose to reflect on the experience on film, which is captured on the video titled “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges”.

One Elder later described the event as “very much needed for us to learn about each other…I can’t believe we didn’t’ think to do this before”. One non-Aboriginal youth expressed concern with ”the amount of racism, the oppression, the discrimination that Aboriginals and other people of our different cultures deal with in our society.”

One non-Aboriginal youth said the day was important because “if we don’t’ share our stories we won’t be able to learn from others mistakes or our own mistakes.”

Another youth summed up the day as “an amazing experience.”

At the end of the day an Elder who was clearly moved by the experience said “ the youth have a voice and they are using it positively… they are being very proactive in their approach against racism.” Another Elder reflected on how she was “very impressed with the youth participants” and said ”I go home hopeful”.

Hopeful, powerful, inspiring are a few words that best describe the day. But it was just one day. We need to figure out how to scale this experience up so that it happens regularly and includes a greater swath of our population. Our city would be well served if Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal youth, inner-city and urban youth, Elders and other adults had an opportunity to come together regularly at Circle of Life Thunderbird House to share, learn and learn ways to bridge the deep divide that exists in our city. As Winnipeg’s Aboriginal population grows, this will become increasingly important.

For many Winnipeggers, a trip to the corner of Higgins and Main will mean leaving the comfort of our suburban neighbourhoods. But anyone who has taken part in an event at Thunderbird House will know that it is a magical place where healing can begin. For a whole host of reasons, it is a place that should be the starting place for fixing our divided city to begin.

Shauna MacKinnon is Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Inner City Studies at the University of Winnipeg. To read about the “Our Divided City” project go to. http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/Manitoba%20Office/2013/12/State_of_Inner_City2012.pdf. The video can be viewed at https://www.policyalternatives.ca/multimedia/breaking-barriers-building-bridges-video.

A version of this article was published in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 9, 2014 and by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, October 10, 2014