Style trumps substance at racism summit

Racism is real and it is rampant in Winnipeg. Maclean’s magazine rightly and thankfully drew national attention last fall to the city’s dirty little secret. Mayor Bowman took the uncharacteristic step of acknowledging it. However, the mayor’s latest attempt to confront this pernicious and pervasive plague — by way of a national summit in September — is ill conceived and unlikely to amount to much.

The stream of glamour shots that populate the mayor’s Twitter feed is reason enough to be skeptical. While he has been frequently absent from serious debates on matters for which he had promised to take a lead (for example, active transportation, downtown parking, suburban sprawl), he seems never to miss a chance to pose for the camera. Ten months into his first year and he continues to mistake announcements for accomplishments. His national summit on racism is no different.

Consider this unfortunate irony: those who might benefit the most from attending this conference are least likely to attend it. Will, for example, those police officers who released Tina Fontaine into the darkness that fateful night last year be attending the summit? What about those nurses who went about their work while Brian Sinclair sat dying then dead in the waiting room of the Health Sciences Centre ER? Who among those anonymous Internet trolls that so frequently post racist bile to the pages of the CBC’s website will be there?

Similarly, consider another: despite admonishments from both Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Murray Sinclair that Canada attempted to commit cultural genocide against Aboriginal peoples, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which refuses to acknowledge or even use the term genocide in its exhibit on Canada’s Indigenous peoples, is playing host to the summit.

Finally, there is the matter of the admissions fee: at $50, this summit is already discriminating against those who — for reasons that include racism — cannot afford to buy a ticket. Already social service agencies are ponying up the cash to send some of the city’s brightest and best activists and advocates; wrongly, their attendance is now an act of charity. How insulting.

Indeed, earlier this year, again to much fanfare, Mayor Bowman announced the creation of an Indigenous Advisory Circle to provide the City of Winnipeg with important and invaluable advice on matters related to healing the racist schism that for too long has divided the city. They will be holding their inaugural meeting concurrent to the mayor’s conference, which surely makes the holding of the conference itself somewhat premature. That is, unless the objective is a glorious public relations stunt, in which case the mayor is definitely on to something.

What if, say, the Advisory Circle determines holding such a summit is unhelpful; that the City would be better off spending whatever money they have earmarked for it on enhanced training for front-line social and service workers. That would be embarrassing, especially after all that effort into the planning and hosting of such a flashy summit.

All too often Winnipeggers celebrate the effort instead of the outcome. Chalk it up to the city’s small-town sense of self and resulting inferiority complex. No doubt, then, the response to those who criticize the mayor’s summit will be the same: at least he is doing something.

Of course, the alternative to the mayor’s summit is not to do nothing; there are so many things, large and small, the city and the City can do to combat racism. Many, unfortunately, do not generate glowing headlines or offer the mayor a chance to take selfies. No, the work of combating racism, both societal and institutional, is tough, unglamorous slogging — and it does not start with a summit, but with a serious commitment to that hard work.

Winnipeg’s racism problem is twofold: it is both societal and institutional. Mayor Bowman’s forthcoming summit will do little to solve either. Another missed opportunity by a mayor wholly out of his depth and utterly consumed with optics instead of results.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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