Writing in the National Post, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Senior Fellow Ken Coates argues that the problems facing Aboriginals in Canada run deeper than racism.Ken Coats

Coates, who was responding to a sensational recent  Maclean’s magazine cover story about the extent of racism towards Aboriginals in Winnipeg, says the solution instead lies with making Aboriginals powerful actors in their own renaissance. And, while the city faces serious issues, there are plenty of examples of this in Winnipeg.

By Ken Coates, Jan. 28, 2015

With its current edition, Maclean’s magazine has sparked a national debate about the nature and extent of Canadian racism. Through the simple device of calling Winnipeg the “most racist” city in Canada, it has shone a light on one of the greatest “wicked problems” (a complex problem for which there is no simple solution) in Canadian public life. But it moves us no closer to a resolution.

Racism is clearly part of the picture. But attaching it to the situation facing First Nations suggests that the solution lies in tackling the racists and changing their attitudes. That’s putting the cart before the horse.

Picking on Winnipeg also blames the city for demographic and social accidents beyond its control. The challenges facing indigenous peoples are particularly acute in cities with large aboriginal populations, both in percentage and absolute terms. In these cities — Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary — the size of the First Nations population makes the issue a collective challenge and responsibility.

There are serious issues in the Manitoban capital. The migration of First Nations people from northern Manitoba, which has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the country and many communities in serious crisis, exacerbates the existing problems in the city. For northern First Nations people, Winnipeg is an “arrival city,” a place that at least holds the promise of a better life and an escape from hardship. There is thus little reason for Canadians in other cities to look down their noses at those on the frontlines trying to deal with the legacy of Canada’s failed aboriginal policies.

The point to bear in mind is that — strident racists aside — there is an overwhelming consensus in this country about the need to end that legacy and improve opportunities for aboriginal people. The constructive and positive developments in recent years, from constitutional and legal recognition of rights to surging aboriginal business development and large-scale indigenous enrolment in colleges and universities, have set the country on a much different course. That problems persist is widely recognized.

First Nations want — and deserve — full recognition and acceptance of their aboriginal and treaty rights. First Nations also generally want greater autonomy, less interference from the federal government, and the resources needed to secure the same level of services that other Canadians take for granted. Many aboriginal Canadians — but no longer most — stay in their traditional territories and communities, but all want and expect a fair return from the development of resources on their lands. More than anything, they want, expect and deserve to be accepted as full members of the broader Canadian community.

Wicked problems defy easy solutions, and this case is no different. But Canada has enough successful First Nations communities, from Whitecap in Saskatchewan, to Old Crow in the Yukon and Membertou in Nova Scotia, to prove that the problems are not as intractable as many Canadians believe. That is the narrative that holds out hope for something better for aboriginal people, because it makes them powerful actors in their own renaissance.

But there is an alternative narrative, one that focuses on racism and victimization, social isolation and poverty. This narrative claims that despicable attitudes on the part of a minority of Canadians are the problem, and therefore implies that progress is only possible if we defeat those attitudes. This transfers the power to effect change to those elements of society least likely to change, and most hostile to the progress of aboriginal people.

The response of Winnipegers — aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike — to the Maclean’sarticle is a classic example of the first, empowering, narrative. The community doesn’t just resent its portrayal as a bastion of racism; it more importantly resents the neglect of the real collective action being undertaken to set things right, even in the face of the racism that undeniably exists there and elsewhere in Canada.

Canada needs to think about the most effective strategy for redefining its relationship with First Nations peoples. If our understanding of the current situation and the opportunities of the future is limited to hurling accusations at one another, we will find it harder to change the reality of Aboriginal people on the ground.

Many First Nations people understand that they have real options, based on aboriginal title, indigenous rights, and First Nations cultural strength, in defining their own future. Many non-aboriginal people already stand alongside their aboriginal friends and neighbours, determined to build a more equitable future.

Winnipeg, irony of ironies, is at the forefront of this cooperative, aboriginally-driven, inter-racial problem-solving effort that is the real hope for indigenous peoples. By choosing the narrative of change, and of successful collaboration between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, we can continue to see First Nations businesses, aboriginal communities, and accomplished Indigenous Canadians flourish. In so doing we may not eliminate every vestige of racism, but can and will render the racists amongst us irrelevant.

Ken S. Coates is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair in regional innovation in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.