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Community Development in Winnipeg’s Inner City

Indigenous Politics

If you look hard enough in the midst of Winnipeg’s sprawling and decaying inner city, you will see scattered islands of remarkable creativity and collective action: innovative community development (CD) initiatives battling the seemingly relentless spread of urban poverty. Most Winnipeggers are oblivious to this struggle: they choose not to know about it – or to care.

Some of the most exciting inner-city CD initiatives are being driven by the Aboriginal community, led in most cases by strong and resourceful urban Aboriginal women. Most of these women bring to these projects a philosophy of sharing and community that is rooted in traditional Aboriginal belief systems.

Winnipeg, Poverty and Colonialism

Winnipeg’s inner city has astonishingly high rates of poverty and associated social pathologies – high rates of unemployment, low rates of labour-force participation, street-gang activity, prostitution (which starts in some cases before girls reach their teens), violence and dilapidated housing.

Winnipeg also has the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada, and it is a population that is growing far faster than, and is much younger than, the population at large. Not all Aboriginal people in Winnipeg are poor; not all poor people in Winnipeg are Aboriginal. In fact, most poor people are non-Aboriginal. Yet it is the case that Winnipeg’s Aboriginal population is disproportionately concentrated in the inner city, is disproportionately represented among the poor, and is very adversely affected by the ravages of poverty. Jails, youth detention centres and group homes have all become rough warehouses for Aboriginal people, and Winnipeg is a deeply segregated and racist city. This is the legacy of a long and still-present process of the colonization of Aboriginal peoples.

Community Development

Community development is about people identifying and solving their own problems. In Winnipeg’s inner city, CD initiatives are generally driven by community-based organizations (CBOs) that are small, energetic, creative and very closely in touch with the people who live in inner-city neighbourhoods. Most of these CBOs are doing “capacity building.” Capacity building is a trendy term currently much beloved by governments and funding agencies, but the basic idea has deep socialist origins. It is the idea that the development of people’s capacities is fundamentally progressive; the goal of capacity building is to make people the central actors in their own lives.

For the best of the Aboriginal CBOs, the promotion of Aboriginal culture is front and centre in the work that they do. This is because the Aboriginal experience, both historical and current, is rooted in the colonization of Aboriginal peoples. Colonialism, as the now deceased, radical Métis scholar and activist Howard Adams explained to us, is the air that we all breathe. So deeply entrenched is the colonial mindset that it is the common sense of the age; it is hegemonic. This belief suggests that Aboriginal culture is inferior, and the solution to Aboriginal peoples’ problems is for them to become more like us.

The best of the inner-city Aboriginal CBOs consciously reject these colonial assumptions. Their work is rooted in the attempt to rebuild knowledge of and pride in Aboriginal ways of being. Since many Aboriginal people have internalized the false colonial belief system that pervades Canadian culture, they cannot develop their capacities unless they can throw off the colonial belief in their own inferiority. An important step in Aboriginal community development is therefore the promotion of an Aboriginal cultural revival.

The best analogy for this is the importance socialists attach to encouraging a sense of class consciousness in working-class people.

Towards an Aboriginal Cultural Revival

In the early 1980s a group of urban Aboriginal people, mostly women, led the struggle to establish the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, an urban Aboriginal child and family services agency. Ma Mawi, as it is more briefly called, was for a while a largely typical, western-oriented social-services agency located in a downtown business area far from the inner city and run in a largely bureaucratic fashion with workers and clients. In the 1990s, however, in response to the expressed wishes and needs of inner-city Aboriginal families, Ma Mawi transformed its work and became a prevention-oriented, community-based, culturally Aboriginal organization. It relocated its offices and staff to a number of inner-city neighbourhoods and began to offer a host of preventative programs rooted in Aboriginal cultural values. It is now a leader in creative, Aboriginal-run CD initiatives in Winnipeg’s inner city. It has fashioned itself as a “learning organization,” focused not only on developing the capacities of the community “out there,” but also on developing the capacities of its Aboriginal staff.

Another powerful example of an inner-city CBO is the Urban Circle Training Centre. Urban Circle, which is about 20 years old, relocated in 2004 to a magnificently renovated building with a fully Aboriginal design on Selkirk Avenue, the heart of Winnipeg’s historic North End. Urban Circle has developed an Aboriginal approach to adult education. The process is transformative. Although the almost entirely Aboriginal staff at Urban Circle do not actually use these words to describe their approach, what they are engaged in is a process of “decolonization.” Aboriginal adults, most carrying the burdens and scars of years of inner-city life and the pain of the relentless imposition upon them of racist and colonial belief systems, start the program at Urban Circle with a month-long intensive program that walks them through their personal life stories, and then roots these almost invariably painful stories in an understanding of the colonial experience to which they have all been subjected. The problems which they had seen as personal failings come to be re-conceptualized as the product of a collective process that adversely affected almost all Aboriginal people. The results are dramatic. Graduates of Urban Circle – and the graduation rates are astonishingly high, thanks in large part to the remarkable work of the teaching and support staff and their Aboriginal approach to learning – go back into the community as people who are not only able to find jobs that pay a living wage, but are also able to live and work as Aboriginal people, proud of who they are.

There are many more exciting CD initiatives in Winnipeg’s inner city, many but by no means all of them Aboriginal. Typically they are small organizations, highly innovative and creative in the way that they operate, and linked in a genuinely close way to the communities with whom they work. They represent much of the hope that is to be found on the often mean streets of Winnipeg’s inner city.

Some Limitations of the Aboriginal Revival

Naturally, there are limitations to these kinds of initiatives, and it is important to identify these as part of the process of thinking about the future of Winnipeg’s inner city. The most important of these limitations has to do with funding. Inner-city CBOs are reliant upon governments and other funding agencies – the United Way and various foundations – for financing their operations. They are constantly scrambling for money. This makes them dependent upon their funders, unlike the union movement, for example, which “taxes” its own members and thus has an independent source of revenue. The financial dependency of CBOs often promotes a “patron-client” kind of politics in the inner city – it becomes important to have access to funders, and to meet the funders’ needs and expectations. One insightful inner-city Aboriginal activist argues that this is a deliberate strategy of “containment.” In this process, just enough money is injected into the inner city to keep talented people occupied with running their organizations and with constantly scrambling for money. But there is never enough money invested for the inner city to be transformed on a larger scale.

To really turn things around in Winnipeg’s inner city would require a much larger investment than is now being contemplated. There is no sign that this is likely to come. The provincial NDP government has been much better for the inner city than its Conservative predecessors. For inner-city people, the difference is meaningful. But it is not enough to really turn things around.

In its last budget in the spring of 2004, the provincial government continued to inch down personal and corporate income taxes, and to meet the Balanced Budget legislation requirement for much more rapid than necessary debt repayment. It also continued to prioritize health care and education, with the result that in another 12 departments funding was either frozen or cut. So long as the fiscal strategy is to meet corporate demands to cut taxes and pay down debts, and to meet middle-class demands to fund health and education – which together comprise two-thirds of spending – there is little left in the provincial coffers for much else, including the fight against poverty.

Nor is there much immediate pressure on governments to do more about poverty. In the inner city, the best activists are fully consumed with running their community-based organizations. They are doing wonderful and necessary work, but there is little time left for sustained political work, and their financial dependency mitigates against the kind of militancy that would be likely to yield the political changes that are needed. When such militancy is used in a sustained and collective way, it can mobilize large numbers of Aboriginal people, and can be effective. But in recent decades, it has become episodic and directed at particular objectives – the effort, for example, driven largely by women, to establish an Aboriginal child and family welfare agency that led to the establishment of Ma Mawi, or the mobilization by the Thunder Eagle Society that led to the creation of an Aboriginal high school, Children of the Earth. More recently, the Urban Futures Group – a mixed, Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal inner-city coalition – engaged in a two-and-a-half year campaign to win a renewed, multi-year, multi-million-dollar, tri-level urban development agreement that will inject much-needed additional funding into the inner city.

These are, however, exceptions to the rule. People in the inner city, and Aboriginal people in particular, vote less on average than more well-to-do people, and so the inner city is unable to exert electoral pressure on governments. And at least for the moment, those in the inner city most in need of dramatic political change are largely immobilized by despair and hopelessness and the day-to-day struggle for survival. When they do lash out in anger, it is likely that the anger gets directed at one another and confined to the inner city.

As long as this continues to be the case, things will go on largely as they are now – islands of brilliant creativity and hope in the midst of a vast and growing sea of despair. It is unlikely, however, that such despair can persist for too much longer without some form or other of dramatic political response. When that happens, a Winnipeg population now largely oblivious to the pain and injustice of the inner city can be expected to react with racist-tinged outrage at the forms such politics are likely to take.

Winnipeg through Contrasting Lenses

There are at least two lenses through which to view Winnipeg’s inner city. One focuses on the socio-economic and demographic numbers and the problems that they represent, highlighting the seemingly inexorable geographic spread of the inner city and generating images of violence and social chaos. This is the dominant view. The other lens focuses on the islands of change generated by inner city people themselves, and sees these – for all their limitations – as the basis for a broader set of changes that could be transformative. This lens leads us to think about what genuinely social-democratic governments might do to promote the process of inner-city change.

What genuinely social-democratic governments could and should do is to invest massively in the inner city, and to do so through a state that is refashioned as a “facilitative” state. By that I mean that the state ought to see its role as being to facilitate the process of inner-city community development – invest money in ways and in institutions that people in the inner city direct them to do, and then provide the supports necessary for inner-city people to solve their own problems in the ways that they themselves collectively choose.

Some governments are now paying lip service to such ideas, but in reality they have so far proven themselves to be unwilling to relinquish control to the community, and even more unwilling to invest serious sums of money where it is most needed. In the meantime, it is appropriate for the Left to celebrate and, in whatever ways possible, support the brilliant islands of community-based and collective creativity that are the rays of hope for many in Winnipeg’s inner city.

Jim Silver has worked with inner-city organizations, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and has written extensively about them. He is a founding member and current board member of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba. His publications on Winnipeg’s inner city can be found on the CCPA website, at

This article appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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