With her body still missing on a warm Winnipeg April, the Indigenous community held a vigil for 21 year-old Christine Wood. Prayers were conducted in the Polish National Catholic Church before the ceremonial drum was sounded in the accused’s front yard. Filmmaker and artist John Paskievich walked backward, framing Christine’s Oxford House firstnation relatives as they marched down Burrows Avenue, his trusty Leica camera strapped around the neck. The biographer of the North End. Not since L.B. Foote photographed the bustling first decades of the 20th century, snapping the iconic streetcar tipping of 1919 — perhaps the most famous image ever produced in Winnipeg — has the city had a portrait artist dedicated to preserving its street life in black and white stills.
With a lens and emulsion sensitized to the injustices experienced by communities and individuals, such as animator Ed Ackerman’s expropriation travails documented in the recent documentary Special Ed, this sense of belonging to the fabled working class neighbourhood goes back to Paskievich’s first NFB film, Ted Baryluk’s Grocery. The boundary of the North End in this newly reissued and expanded publication by University of Manitoba Press is generous — with striking images captured south of the CP rail yard in the Centennial neighbourhood. Stone facade cultural institutions haunted by people drifting over from nearby skid row in a clash that is emblematic of the North End, if not actually occurring there.
Born to Ukrainian parents in an Austrian displaced persons camp, Paskievich emigrated to Canada as a child. His arrival in the North End post-WWII coincided with that of the first migrations of Indigenous peoples back into Winnipeg after decades confined to remote reservations in a policy which was never explicitly admitted to by the federal government. When it was lifted, Indigenous peoples migrated back to their former lands, in the shadows of the onion domes and synagogues built by immigrants, who themselves were a subsequent wave after the Scottish settlers whose names were left behind on the streets signs.
In an accompanying essay looking at his and Paskievich’s shared views of crossroads laden with collective history, George Melnyk, author of Radical Regionalism, contemplates resistance to neocolonialism on the Canadian prairies and a Ukrainian community compelled to follow lock-step with hegemonic market-driven ideologies. Children playing with guns are a recurring motif in The North End, as elderly Eastern Europeans plant gardens and the sidewalks are peopled with rough trade hitching rides downtown. Throughout, a sense of the hybridity of backgrounds and the accommodation for difference points toward why this neighbourhood has been a hotbed for radicalism and literary luminaries from Adele Wiseman to Katherena Vermette.
As an artist of his generation, Paskievich places himself within a Cold War discourse — recalling the haunting spectres of fascism and communism that compelled his family to emigrate. This positioning may have been welcome by the gatekeepers of Canadian state-sanctioned culture — with Paskievich working primarily as an NFB director from the time he finished his studies in the 1970s. It is interesting to contemplate an artist with Paskievich’s observational talent were his family to remain in Europe after World War II, joining filmmakers like Sergei Parajanov in the Odessa film scene established by the visionary Dovzhenko.
While factions of his filmmaking peers have paused their own praxis to service American runaway productions, a photo from the 1980s of the Vote Communist banner (still visible on Selkirk Avenue) subtly tips Paskievich’s hand to an ideology steeped in the North End: “People Over Profit.”
Noam Gonick is a filmmaker and artist, currently working on a centenary project for the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike with sculptor Bernie Miller in the form of an illuminated life-sized streetcar in bronze, tipped over and sunken into the street at the site of Bloody Saturday.
This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension (Whiteness & Racism).