The wind struck me like a mild right hook the moment I stepped out of the hotel. It intensified the further I walked out into the street. I was unaware this intersection – Portage and Main – had a notorious reputation of being the “windiest corner in Canada”. I pulled my hat down tight to take a walk and see all that Portage Avenue had to offer. This was my first ever visit to Winnipeg, and I wanted to make the most of it.
It was the winter of 2006 and I had just flown in for a job interview at Canada’s public broadcaster. I was scheduled to leave the next day, hence the eagerness to see as much as possible. I walked westward on Portage, and within minutes saw a bundled-up Aboriginal couple coming my way. I nodded at them in acknowledgement, but they gave me an awkward glance in return. I didn’t think much of it and carried on. Within seconds I noticed another young Aboriginal dude in a leather jacked with long hair. Again, a nod, and no reciprocation. This continued for blocks. I saw Natives, and nodded at them. This is what we did in Toronto, because Aboriginal people rarely crossed paths on those massive streets. Some nodded back, some didn’t. After a few minutes I realized I must have looked like an Ojibway bobblehead. Feeling ridiculous, I stopped.
It took walking just a few blocks along Portage to understand why people call Winnipeg “Capital Rez”. Aboriginal people are an especially visible and increasingly crucial part of the social fabric in the city and across the province of Manitoba. Up to that point, I lived most of my adult life in Toronto, where Aboriginal people are the biggest in numbers compared to other Canadian cities, but largely invisible, diluted across thousands of neighbourhoods. So whenever First Nations people crossed paths on the street, it was a big deal. But experiencing this presence on Winnipeg’s streets was invigorating. I ended up getting the job, and over the next four years I learned why Winnipeg is the most culturally important city in North America.
That large Aboriginal population means many non-Aboriginal people in Winnipeg are more familiar with the culture and background of First Peoples than in other much larger North American cities. The odds are more people have gone to school, worked or at least socialized with someone who’s Cree, Ojibway, Dene, Metis, or Inuit (and et cetera). It’s naive to think all these encounters have been positive. But I’ve come across people in other bigger cities who didn’t know “Indians” even existed. Even just knowing someone different than you is the first step to building a bridge between cultures. Because of all this shoulder-rubbing in Winnipeg, there’s a stronger foundation than anywhere else.
Winnipeg is also one of the most diverse and culturally-rich places in the world. It’s home to the largest concentration of people from the Philippines than anywhere outside of that country. Many neighbourhoods have strong connections to waves of immigration from the Ukraine and other eastern European countries. Subsequent waves from southeast Asia and many African countries have left the city with a colourful face that on the surface, is strikingly beautiful. That diversity is rooted in the positive relationships spawned by the fur trade, resulting in a powerful Francophone community.
However, putting those facts and the rose-coloured glasses aside reveal a city that is struggling with a cultural transition. This is reflected mostly in what we see in the media. Stories of gang warfare on downtown streets, violence against sex trade workers, racially motivated attacks, and random beatings and killings. Sadly, most people immediately assume the characters in these stories are Aborginal. And a lot of the time that’s true. Therefore, stereotypes are still very alive, floating through the air. But on the ground, there’s hope, and it’s pretty easy to find.
I was fortunate enough to have a job that kept me on the ground and introduced me to dozens of people who taught me about that hope. Like a former prominent gang member who learned about his Metis culture and storytelling to escape that life. Like the two teenaged sex trade workers who surprisingly gave us an interview on Manitoba Avenue. Their sole reason was to warn others about the dangers of the life and how they wanted help out of it but worried they were trapped. Like the residential school survivor who told me that despite all of our problems, he’s the most hopeful he’s ever been in his life because now he finally feels at home in Winnipeg among other Anishinaabe people.
I felt immediately at home upon my arrival in Winnipeg. Not only thanks to the diverse and welcoming Aboriginal communities in the city, but also to the innate warmth of everyone else. All those colourful open arms embraced me. I fell in love with the city and the province and I firmly believe nothing can tarnish that. I’m proud to have called it home for four years and I think everyone who lives there should be even prouder of the great things that are coming. Winnipeg will be an example of cultural harmony that other North American cities will follow.
I walked down Yonge Street in Toronto yesterday. It felt like the first time again because it has changed so much. The city is alive, colourful, and vibrant and I will always love that. But I already can’t wait for my next stroll down Portage Avenue. If you see me, just try to nod back.