Volume 43, Number 1: January/February 2009

Building Resistance

Aboriginal Organizations in Winnipeg’s Inner City

In western Canadian cities like Winnipeg, a new and particularly destructive form of poverty has emerged over the past thirty years. It is inextricably linked with racism, is disproportionately concentrated in the inner city and has especially damaging effects on Aboriginal people. At the same time, it is Aboriginal people and especially Aboriginal women who are in the lead in developing effective, close-to-the-ground strategies to combat this new poverty.

Origins of the New Poverty

In the post-WWII period, a number of broad, socio-economic forces combined to create Winnipeg’s inner city and the new form of poverty disproportionately located there. Suburbanization began to empty the historic North End early in the post-war period. Thousands of those most financially able to do so moved to the greener spaces, bigger lots and newer houses of the suburbs, driving down inner-city housing prices and leaving behind those least able to relocate. Businesses followed, civic organizations that had contributed so much to the thriving cultural life of the old North End atrophied, and the inner city was hollowed out.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the long and still active process of de-industrialization began, and it gradually changed the character of the labour market – that is, the kinds of jobs available to people. Factories and warehouses, like other businesses, relocated to the suburbs where industrial parks emerged on the city’s outskirts, or else left the city entirely in search of lower wages, taking with them growing numbers of the kinds of steady, unionized jobs with which people with modest levels of formal education could raise families. Gradually these have been replaced by contingent jobs: part-time, service sector jobs with low wages, no benefits, no job security and no union – jobs with which raising a family is much more difficult.

At just this historical moment, beginning in the 1960s, large numbers of Aboriginal people began to move to western Canadian urban centres in a process of mass in-migration. In 1951, there were about 200 Aboriginal people in Winnipeg; in 2006, there were more than 68,000 (see table).

They arrived in the city without adequate preparation for urban industrial life, a part of the legacy of the educationally inept residential “school” system. They found accommodation in the North End and broader inner city, where suburbanization had further driven down the prices of the city’s oldest and least expensive housing stock. But they arrived just as the good industrial jobs were leaving as part of the processes of suburbanization and de-industrialization, and faced a wall of racism when they applied for those jobs that were left. Thus began the process by which large numbers of Aboriginal people, especially young Aboriginal people, are disconnected from the paid labour force. This, and the associated persistent racism, is among the root causes of many of today’s most serious inner-city problems.

Further, the destructive impact of colonization has added to the depth, complexity and persistence of the new and violent form of urban poverty now so prevalent in Winnipeg’s inner city.

Character of the New Poverty

The result of these forces has been the creation in Winnipeg’s inner city, as elsewhere, of a new and especially humanly damaging form of spatially concentrated, racialized poverty that disproportionately affects Aboriginal people. The internalization of the colonizers’ false beliefs and stereotypes and their constant reinforcement by racism have, quite understandably, eroded the self-confidence and self-esteem of many Aboriginal people, creating a deep sense of despair, of worthlessness and, especially, of hopelessness.

In a recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives–Manitoba publication, I described the effects by the use of two metaphors:

“One is the notion of a complex web – a web of poverty, racism, drugs, gangs, violence. The other is the notion of a cycle – people caught in a cycle of inter-related problems. Both suggest the idea of people who are trapped, immobilized, unable to escape, destined to struggle with forces against which they cannot win, from which they cannot extricate themselves. The result is despair, resignation, anger, hopelessness, which then reinforce the cycle, and wrap them tighter in the web.”

Emergence of an Urban Aboriginal Response

Yet even while this perverse form of poverty has been tightening its grip on Winnipeg’s inner city, Aboriginal people have been organizing their resistance. Their efforts have led to the creation of a large number of community-based organizations (CBOs) – perhaps as many as seventy – run by and for Aboriginal people. They have developed by building on personal experiences of racialized poverty and the effects of colonization, and they represent a wide range of especially creative and effective anti-poverty initiatives.

The detailed stories of how urban Aboriginal people have built these remarkable CBOs remains to be told. It is largely hidden from history, obscured by the negative, stereotyped lens through which most Winnipeggers view the urban Aboriginal experience. But we know bits and pieces of the story, enough to see the broad outlines of the collective genius of these urban Aboriginal activists.

The process began immediately – as Aboriginal people started to arrive in Winnipeg in numbers in the 1960s – with the Indian-Métis Friendship Centre (IMFC). This Centre was built by young Aboriginal people who wanted a place to gather and to share ideas and make change. Some now-famous people were involved, including Phil Fontaine and Ovide Mercredi, plus numerous others similarly talented but less well known – like Dorothy Betz, who recently passed away, and George Munroe. Betz claimed that in the very early stages of the development of the IMFC she overheard government officials saying something like, “These Indians will never make this organization work; it won’t last long.” It did work, and it has lasted – and from that starting point Aboriginal people have spun off many more community-based organizations.

Percy Bird was involved in many of these. A residential-school survivor, he had been an alcoholic, hanging out in the Main Street bars – which, he observes, were the only public places, other than the IMFC, in which Aboriginal people were allowed to gather – until his organizing skills drew him into the building of numerous community-based organizations. The Native Addictions Treatment Centre, for example, emerged in the wake of a horrific car crash north of Winnipeg. Aboriginal people in Winnipeg began to talk with one another about what might be done. Percy got involved from the outset, and, with hard work and an abundance of organizational, political and fundraising skills, they created the Centre, still in operation today.

Ruth Murdoch, another residential-school survivor who describes spending a part of her teen years in the old Vaughan Street Detention Centre, took an adult education course with other Aboriginal people at about age 30. She learned about colonization, said “Oh, that’s what happened to my family,” and it changed her life. She got involved with what would become the Urban Circle Training Centre, which started with a group of North End Aboriginal women looking for ways to acquire the skills to get decent jobs. Urban Circle, under the leadership of Murdoch and many others, has become a powerful centre of adult, Aboriginal education, using a unique method to introduce Aboriginal adults, most of whom have lived harsh and difficult lives, to an understanding of colonization. Adult students talk about their personal life stories, and are led by this process to see that their difficulties are attributable not to personal failings as much as to the historical and ongoing process of colonization. The effect is liberating.

Urban Circle has produced many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of graduates who have acquired not only formal educational credentials and related skills, but also a newfound understanding of what it is to be Aboriginal, and a pride in being Aboriginal. Over and over, Urban Circle students describe their experience in the program as being transformative.

The Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre (Ma Mawi) is a non-mandated child, youth and family CBO that works closely and in a culturally appropriate way with inner-city Aboriginal families to build their capacities. It emerged in the early 1980s as a response by the Aboriginal community to the continued seizure of their children by Child and Family Services. A mass mobilization, again led by Aboriginal women, was successful in creating the Ma Mawi Chi Itata Centre. Much of their work is “invisible” – the results and benefits are hard to identify with standard indicators. However, an innovative study done last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, working closely and in a highly collaborative and participatory fashion with an organization that calls itself CLOUT (Community-Led Organizations United Together), which includes eight inner-city youth and family CBOs including Ma Mawi, found that the work of Ma Mawi and CLOUT has had enormous positive benefits.

People at very low points in their lives come to one or another program run by a CLOUT organization or another organization like it, where they are provided with various kinds of supports in a culturally appropriate fashion. Many are offered opportunities of various kinds, volunteer opportunities, or very small tasks. For many, this leads to a growth in self-confidence and self-esteem. People feel better about themselves, which is a fundamental issue in a deeply racist society. As their self-confidence and self-esteem grows, their lives improve, often in ways that standard indicators can’t capture: a woman gets the self-confidence to leave an abusive partner; a mother gets her children back from Child and Family Services; a parent gets involved in organizing a hot-dog day at her child’s school, and realizes she has organizing and other skills; a man stops abusing his partner. These gains, largely invisible from downtown bureaucratic offices, create the foundation upon which better lives are built.

In the early 1990s, the Thunder Eagle Society mobilized large numbers of Aboriginal people to demand the creation of an Aboriginal high school. The Winnipeg School Division resisted. Large numbers of urban Aboriginal people were mobilized into this struggle, which was long and bitter. The result, however, was the creation of Children of the Earth High School, located in the heart of Winnipeg’s North End and now doing a superb job of educating young Aboriginal people in an Aboriginal-friendly environment.

These are but a few of the many superb Aboriginal CBOs and institutions working creatively and effectively in Winnipeg’s harsh inner city. Others include (just mentioning a few): the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development; Ka Ni Kanichihk; Ndinawemaaganag Endaawaad; and Ogijitta Pimatiswin Kinawatwin. They have been built and are led by Aboriginal people, mostly but not only women, most of whom have been raised poor. These leaders are exceptionally skilled and politically progressive, although not necessarily and certainly not only in a traditional, Western understanding of that term. Out of their collective experience of racialized poverty has emerged a remarkable creativity that would not otherwise have been possible. All of these Aboriginal CBOs practice some version of the Neechi Principles – named after an Aboriginal worker-collective grocery store in the North End – which include local hiring, local purchasing, local investment and cultural respect. The local hiring principle has come to mean that these CBOs are now a major job-creation strategy. Ma Mawi, for example, employs some 200 Aboriginal staff, all working in a creative and Aboriginal-friendly environment.

Limits of the Community-Based Approach, and Next Steps

Yet, for every step forward – made possible by the collective efforts of these Aboriginal CBOs, and many similar inner-city CBOs that are not strictly Aboriginal but that include many Aboriginal people and work in very similar ways – another step is taken backward, because the socio-economic forces creating and perpetuating this perverse form of racialized and spatially concentrated urban poverty are so powerful, and the problems are now so deep and complex. The current form of poverty in Winnipeg’s inner city has emerged and evolved and deepened over a forty-year period. There are no simple solutions. There are no quick solutions.

At least two things have to happen to defeat this poverty.

First, we need a dramatic increase in public investment in the kinds of initiatives outlined above, and the increased investment needs to be made consistently over a fifteen- or twenty-year period. Winnipeg has probably benefited from more public investment than other western Canadian cities. The Core Area Initiative (CAI) in the early 1980s was a five-year, tri-level, $100-million urban development strategy. While most of that money went into various forms of downtown redevelopment that featured bricks and mortar and had no anti-poverty character at all, some was used to jump-start CBOs like Urban Circle. And the CAI has been followed by three more large, tri-level, multi-million-dollar urban development agreements, each subject to similar criticisms, but each fuelling some of the activity described above. More recently, the Winnipeg Foundation and United Way of Winnipeg have shifted their approaches to some considerable extent, from a charity model to a community development model, so that the kinds of CBOs described above now benefit from their investments. And the current provincial NDP government, elected in 1999, has invested far more in the inner city than did the Conservatives before them, especially but not only through their very effective Neighbourhoods Alive! program.

It is at least in part because of these various ongoing public and quasi-public investments over a 25-to-thirty-year period that we have this rich array of highly effective CBOs, described above, in Winnipeg’s inner city. But the truth about this public investment is two-fold: first, it shows how very much is possible with investment in community-driven anti-poverty initiatives; and second, it nevertheless remains too limited – less than what is possible, and less than what is needed to solve the problems.

So, step number one is dramatically increased public investment over a fifteen-to-twenty-year period. If billions and perhaps trillions of dollars are available to bail out banks and fund foreign wars, then the money is available to declare a war on poverty. The skills and creativity exist to put that money to good and effective use. The impediment is broadly political and ideological.

Second, anti-poverty efforts in Winnipeg’s inner city need to become more strategic. That is, a coherent, over-all, integrated strategy is now needed to link the many community-based efforts that have emerged in a completely bottom-up fashion in a way that promotes widespread individual and community transformation.

The development of such a strategy is a process still in its infancy. But it will come.

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