NEWS

Rinelle Harper only one part of Winnipeg's race divide

11/15/2014 06:03 EST | Updated 01/15/2015 05:59 EST
The city of Winnipeg has both a monument and a mural dedicated to the memory of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Erected with the help of provincial funding, these memorials speak to the need to acknowledge the pain inflicted by what has become a national crisis.

Winnipeg has the highest urban population of aboriginal people of any Canadian city, and the racial divide is real. CBC Radio's World at Six came to Winnipeg to explore that. And we found people willing and wanting to talk about how the racial divide is a constant part of life here.

Rick Koss owns Hunter Wire, a steel manufacturing company that employs close to 50 people. He is a non-aboriginal and a life-long Winnipegger, and he describes a "strained and distrustful" relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people in the city.

"There is this distance," Koss says. "I don't think either side knows what to do about it, and I don't think either side is happy about it. But how to break out of that mould is something we are trying to discover."

He says he knows one way he can help is by hiring aboriginal workers — and he has done so. But it hasn't always worked out.

"One of the difficulties we've had employing aboriginal people in particular is their concept of time," he told us. He said some of his hires didn't understand they had to come to work all day every day. "It's been a frustration."

Teen mentoring

Across town, we visited an aboriginal support centre on the other side of Winnipeg's racial divide. At Ka Ni Kanichihk, I am invited to take part in a traditional smudging ceremony, a purifying ritual.

Burning traditional herbs and waving the smoke across a person is just one aspect of the healing process that is followed here.

Kimberly Hodgson tells me about the variety of programs that range from traditional gatherings and counselling to practical life and job skills training.

One program really resonated, given the events of this week. It's a mentoring session for aboriginal teens who come to live in Winnipeg from northern communities where high school options are limited.

About 900 aboriginal youth leave their communities every year to study in Winnipeg. Rinelle Harper — the young woman who was sexually assaulted, beaten and left for dead in the Assiniboine River last weekend — was one of them.

Lilian Bonito says Harper didn't attend the group. If she had, she might have found a mentor who would have warned her about danger zones in the city where gangs prey on young girls.

"The main focus of the program is to keep them away from sexual exploitation and gang affiliation, and to guide them in the right direction," she told me. Bonito says she would like to connect with Harper "and help her out."

'There was a question of my right to be there'

Leslie Spillett, the centre's executive director, tells me indigenous people "have always been seen as underprivileged and 'less than.'"

The well-known, outspoken community activist still finds herself on the receiving end of racism's sting. Just recently, she described how she was greeted by a non-aboriginal assistant when she turned up for an important community meeting a few minutes late.

"What was communicated to me was I didn't belong, hey. Everybody else belonged because they were wearing business suits and were mostly white men. And there was a question of my right to be there," Spillett says.

Spillett says the indigenous community in Winnipeg now needs to take control of itself to remedy years of damage caused by residential schools and generations being forced out of their communities and into cities where they have felt unwelcome.

She says more money has to go to aboriginal-run social service and education programs. The majority, she says, are still primarily run by non-aboriginal people who can't bridge cultural differences.

"We are taking ownership of our own, and I think that when indigenous people are in control of their own development, things change significantly for the better."

Like Rick Koss, Spillett doesn't see Winnipeg's racial divide being fully repaired anytime soon. But they are both hopeful it can happen.

Theirs are the calm voices in the painful conversation that can sometimes get drowned out when the race question convulses. They each vow to continue to speak out.

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