Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mayor of Winnipeg Brian Bowman with U of T Law Indigenous students past and present - from left,  Anna Flaminio (SJD Candidate), Douglas Sanderson (faculty), Deanna Roffey (JD Candidate), Amanda Carling (JD 2012), Mayor Bowman (JD 1999), Zachary Biech (JD Candidate) and Joshua Favel (JD Candidate).
Mayor of Winnipeg Brian Bowman  with U of T Law Indigenous students past and present - from left,  Anna Flaminio (SJD Candidate), Douglas Sanderson (faculty), Deanna Roffey (JD Candidate), Amanda Carling (JD 2012), Mayor Bowman (JD 1999), Zachary Biech (JD Candidate) and Joshua Favel (JD Candidate).

By Peter Boisseau

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has a duty to bring his country together after a bitter and divisive campaign, but he told a University of Toronto Law school audience he’s not optimistic that will happen.

During the campaign, Trump mocked and disparaged women, Muslims, Mexicans and people with disabilities, among others, and since his election, a range of extremist groups including white nationalists have said they feel vindicated by his rise to power.

“I think the challenge for the president-elect is to leave a less divided country than the one he took over,” Bowman said at the 2016 David B. Goodman lecture.

“That’s the measure by which he should be judged now.”

Whether it is related or not, Winnipeg has seen a rise in hate-speech since Trump’s election, including a slew of “fascist and intolerant” posters that appeared across the city last week, following similar incidents in Toronto and elsewhere.

During the U.S. campaign, Bowman invited Trump to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg after the presidential candidate promised to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. if elected. Bowman repeated the invitation at the lecture.

“I believe he could learn something about human rights and the values of tolerance and inclusion.”

In an interview following the lecture, Bowman said he didn’t want to disparage all the people who voted for Trump. Bowman believes many were motivated by a desire for change and Trump’s promises to improve the economy, not his views on race or religion.

“But I am worried, absolutely,” said Bowman. “The rhetoric we saw in the campaign was really disturbing.”

Bowman told the audience that the divide and conquer approach of Trump’s campaign may have been a successful strategy for gaining office, but it’s a destructive way to lead.

Since sweeping to power in Winnipeg in 2014 to become the first Indigenous mayor of a major Canadian city, Bowman has been trying to bring his community together and heal a legacy of racism.

Much of that intolerance and hatred has been directed at the city’s large Indigenous population—which includes Métis, First Nations, Inuit and Dene—who now represent approximately 11 per cent of its more than 700,000 residents.

The affable Bowman, who is sometimes chided for being “too nice,” cut his teeth on student politics while studying law at U of T in the late 1990s before returning to Winnipeg, where he eventually started his own practice before running for mayor.

“What I learned at U of T was how to teach myself to learn,” said Bowman, who is Métis. “I certainly felt that when I left here, I had a strong footing to make a difference in the world.”

Since being elected, Bowman has tackled Winnipeg’s problems by bringing together a coalition of disparate groups and delving into areas not normally addressed by civic politicians.

He has used the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as inspiration for his campaign to turn Winnipeg into a shining example of tolerance and inclusion, no small feat for a city Maclean’s magazine labelled the most racist in Canada.

Bowman said the report should serve as a wake-up call about Canada’s own dark history of racism and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, and also as an opportunity to return to the optimistic vision that helped build the nation.

“We have some big problems affecting Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and we have a responsibility to turn the ship around, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.”

The First Nations chiefs who signed the treaties granting Canada access to the land and resources it needed to expand and build a national railroad thought it was the first chapter in a story about peace and partnership.

But as the report documented in painful detail, it degenerated into a story of abuse and oppression, including the forced removal of an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their homes to place them in residential schools.

Generations of children lost their identity, dignity and self-respect, and the inter-generational damage continues to this day, often in the form of mental health and substance abuse issues, said Bowman.

Choking up at the thought of his own two young sons, Bowman said the pain and prejudice will take a long time to heal, just as the profound changes in culture and attitudes required to make Canada a truly inclusive society will require great effort.

“What does reconciliation mean? It is a question of basic human dignity. It’s the right of every person from every background to be treated with kindness, decency and respect,” said Bowman.

“Reconciliation also means renewing that story of partnership and peace that the treaties began to tell.”

Third-year law student Alayna Dueck, who is from Winnipeg, asked Bowman about the city’s programs to tackle unemployment, mental health and substance abuse.

Among other initiatives, Winnipeg has made reconciliation training mandatory for all city employees, developed an “Indigenous Accord” and created “The Winnipeg Promise” to remove barriers and ensure every child has access to post-secondary education, he noted.

It has also vowed to eradicate homelessness within a decade, and funds teams of social workers to scour back alleys and underpasses in the worst of the city’s winter weather to find and help people without shelter.

Bowman said he still often faces racism from “online haters” who question his focus on Indigenous peoples.

But he points out that reconciliation benefits all Canadians, noting the success of Winnipegger Sean McCormick, the Métis entrepreneur behind Manitobah Mukluks, which has become an international brand that has won favour with celebrities such as Kate Moss and Prince Harry.

That’s only one example of many, and even more will soon follow.

“Racism puts up barriers that frustrate the human spirit, like roadblocks to success and prosperity for us all,” said Bowman.

“When we recover the true Canadian story of peace and partnership and inclusion, our highest ideals we cherish, we will improve our chances of success.”

Zachary Biech, a 1st-year law student, asked Bowman what universities and students can do to help.

Bowman replied that as centres for thought and leadership, universities and students are important players in finding answers to the problems of racism and intolerance plaguing society.

The conversation has to happen everywhere, from kitchen tables to the wider community, and every action that spreads inclusiveness is vital.

“My challenge for all of you is simple. Find and recover your piece of that Canadian story, that piece of the story we as a country have somehow lost track of, and share it with your community and the world.”

Watch the complete lecture