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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Let’s Talk

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday February 19, 06:28 pm
Saskatoon can’t simply sweep racism under the rug

In late January, Maclean's published a story calling Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, while also stating that “Manitoba and Saskatchewan report the highest levels of racism [and racist incidents] in the country.”

Ouch.

Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman, in an urgently called press conference, was surrounded by community leaders and visibly emotional when he said: “Ignorance, hatred, intolerance, racism exists everywhere. Winnipeg has a responsibility right now to turn this ship around and change the way we all relate — aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians alike, from coast to coast to coast. We are here together to face this head-on as one community[...] We're not going to end racism tomorrow but we're sure as hell going to try.”

From there, Bowman launched a new, community-driven, anti-racism website called 1winnipeg.ca, scheduled a press conference a year from the Maclean's article publication date to ensure both he and the City stay accountable, and essentially made it his crusade to confront and end racism in Winnipeg. His response has garnered applause nationwide.

Saskatoon mayor Don Atchison, according to a short CBC article, responded rather differently. “The good news, says Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison, is that the city is not as racist as Winnipeg,” wrote Matthew Kruchak of CBC.

The CBC article goes on to quote Mayor Atchison, now somewhat infamously, as saying, "I think we're eons ahead of where they are in Winnipeg."

Meanwhile in Saskatoon, Atchison came under considerable fire for his comments, with many calling his claim of Saskatoon being “eons ahead” overly defensive and dismissive of an important issue.

But Atchison says the comment was taken entirely out of context.

“We need to clear up that misconception right off the bat, what I referred to about Winnipeg. If you listen to the dialogue, I had talked about us having commercial urban reserves, and treaty land entitlement, and [that] Saskatoon was the first city in Canada to establish a commercial urban reserve,” says Atchison. “So when I talk about Winnipeg, what's happening in Saskatoon with urban reserves, I think we are well ahead of everyone in Canada [...] If they want to take it out of context, I can't help that.”

Atchison was in fact referencing Saskatoon's treaty land entitlement directly preceding his “eons” statement. But CBC radio host Leisha Grebinski politely interrupted the mayor to ask, “Do you think we're different from Winnipeg?”, at which point Atchison let his “eons” statement fly.

So to be fair, the exact context of that statement is as clear as mud — and Atchison says he absolutely agrees with the importance of confronting racism.

“I think the Cultural Diversity and Race Relations committee is exceedingly important, because we have people from all over the world coming to live in Saskatoon,” he says. “We’re becoming a far more cosmopolitan city, so we want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and feels that this is their new home. But it's like a marriage — you have to keep working all the time. We have to continually strive to ensure that people's thoughts and impressions of others is positive [...], and we need constant diligence.”

But the proof is in the pudding — and while Winnipeg's Bowman seems dedicated to producing a Jell-O factory, it remains to be seen whether Saskatoon will demand much more than a single-serving pudding cup.

Saskatoon City Councillor Charlie Clark lauds Bowman's proactive response.

“I think [Mayor Bowman] really stepped up to the challenge of that situation. A lot of the thought was that he would react in a more defensive way and trying to indicate, like we normally expect people to do, that's it’s not so bad as it's been made out to be. But I think by acknowledging the issue and opening the space to say 'Yup, this is serious, let's not minimize it,' it really creates a bigger space for the conversation to happen,” says Clark.

That’s something sorely needed in Saskatoon, he says.

“I think we still have discrimination in Saskatoon; we by no means have overcome the history of our country leaving some communities subjugated underneath others,” says Clark. “You don't have to look beyond the proportion of the number of young First Nations men and women incarcerated in prison, or the numbers of [immigrant] doctors and PhDs out there driving cabs.

“Opportunity is still differential based on your background — it's part of our reality, I think there's no sense in denying it. Let’s be humbled by it and figure out what we need to do to create more equality in our society and communities.”

According to the Government of Canada, in the period between March 2010 and January 2013, 63.9 per cent of the inmate population at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary was First Nations. Only 15 per cent of the population in Saskatchewan is First Nations.

Chief Felix Thomas of the Saskatoon Tribal Council says that how we compare to Winnipeg is irrelevant.

“Whether we’re number one or number 10 [of most racist cities], it's still a big issue,” he says. “I'm a First Nations leader here and I take some responsibility for that [...] It's a hard topic to discuss, and it's a hard topic to combat. It's easier to just hope that somebody is doing something, or hope that society will become better, that it will fix itself. We need to make a real concerted effort. As leadership in town, we need to admit that there is a problem here and that we can do something about that problem.

“I think the general public in Saskatoon have never really experienced a lot of racism, so it's not understood, whereas a lot of First Nations people have experienced that. Whether it's being followed around when you're in a store, whether it's trying to rent a house, whether it's applying for a job. Those things are all prevalent,” says Thomas.

When asked about Atchison's statement, Thomas said handling things differently, even now, would be a worthwhile approach.

“If I was in the mayor's shoes, I think it's never too late to handle things differently. Upon reflection, and this goes for any issue not just racism, if you think that you could have handled it differently, kudos to anyone who reflects on it and says, 'Yeah, maybe I should of handled it this way.' We're human; it's okay to change your mind,” says Thomas.

“The important thing right now is not to be smug about the situation, to take it seriously and listen the community on this,” says Clark. “And then set the tone in Saskatoon, really try to break down those barriers to make sure that everybody has equal opportunity to succeed.”

In the end, perhaps some good has come out of the Maclean's article, says Clark.

“I don't know how many people actually read the article itself, but I think that the conversation that's actually come out around it has been quite productive. Like the way we've heard some really strong voices emerge; [U of S Students’ Union president] Max FineDay came out and really articulated some issues related to it. And so keeping the dialogue going and saying, 'Let's not hide from this' has been a productive outcome of the article.” 

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