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Welcome to Winnipeg: The Human Rights Capital of Canada

Our city’s shortcomings are well-documented. We have an acute racism problem, there is violence in the North End, and yes, we are occasionally colder than Mars. But amidst these issues, another side of Winnipeg percolates. Our city is a thriving hotbed of human rights activity.

Back Then... Much of Canada’s historical human rights movement has played out on the streets of Winnipeg. It’s here that Canadian women were first granted the right to vote and Canada’s best-known general strike occurred. Métis leader Louis Riel, the Winnipeg-born founder of Manitoba, led two rebellions against the Canadian Government in a quest to protect Métis rights. French language rights in Canada were pivotally advanced by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Reference Re Manitoba Language Rights, which provided clarity on the validity of statutes that do not meet constitutional linguistic requirements.

And Now! Today, Winnipeg finds itself in the middle of some of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns. In a 2016 follow-up piece to her infamous article on racism in Winnipeg, Nancy Macdonald stated that Winnipeg was “fast becoming a capital of reconciliation.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was headquartered in Winnipeg, and the National Centre on Truth and Reconciliation is at the University of Manitoba. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman declared 2016 as “the year of reconciliation”, and personally visited every high school in the city to talk about it. Based on community feedback that the City needed to enhance Indigenous inclusion, Bowman established an Indigenous Advisory Circle, as well as adopted an Indigenous Accord last March committing the city to an ongoing, long-term process of reconciliation. We've got a long journey to remedy longstanding injustices, but these are steps in the right direction. Winnipeg has also been a key player in Canada’s efforts to assist refugees, with 331 refugee claimants intercepted at the Manitoba-US border during the first quarter of 2017 alone. Refugees seeking asylum in Canada enter disproportionately into Manitoba, as Ontario’s terrain is treacherous and, unlike us, Saskatchewan provides no legal aid to refugees. Emerson, a small rural municipality with less than 700 people, was the first response point when refugees arrived in Manitoba; Winnipeg organizations were quickly overwhelmed with the influx of claimants. Winnipeggers were so eager to help out that United Way Winnipeg created a special website to help coordinate and allocate donations. And of course, hosting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights—the “first museum in the world solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights”—doesn’t hurt either. :)

Winnipeg Has the Densest Welfare Sector But the Winnipeg human rights scene extends far beyond a single museum. According to the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA), Winnipeg hosts 2,172 registered charities: 1,843 of these are charitable organizations. Other than Vancouver, no other populous city in Canada (those with at least 500,000 people) has a greater density of charitable organizations compared to its population size. Schools and churches, however, are often registered charitable organizations, so let’s just consider “welfare organizations”. Here, Winnipeg has the greatest density of any major Canadian city. With one welfare organization for every 1,831 people, Winnipeg edges out both Montreal and Vancouver (who have one welfare organization for every 1,841 and 1,863 people, respectively). For comparison, this makes Winnipeg more than twice as charity-dense as Toronto. Additionally, Winnipeg has more welfare organizations in total than Calgary, Edmonton, or Ottawa, though all these cities have larger populations. How Do Canada's Most Populous Cities Stack up Against Winnipeg?CityPopulationTotal Number of Registered CharitiesTotal Number of Charitable Organizations1 Charitable Organization For Every __ PeopleTotal Number of Welfare Organizations1 Welfare Organization For Every __ PeopleVancouver631,0002,6071,8601/3393391/1,861Calgary1,239,0002,3501,9471/6362931/4,229 Edmonton933,0001,8831,6611/5612701/3,456Winnipeg705,0002,1721,8431/3833851/1,831Toronto2,732,0005,5714,0631/6727081/3,859Mississauga722,0009268071/8951221/5,918Hamilton537,0007826571/8171061/5,066Ottawa934,0001,7731,5371/6082551/3,663Quebec City532,0009708431/6312781/1,914Montreal1,705,0004,2863,5161/4859261/1,841Statistics taken from the Canadian Revenue Agency. Populations taken from the 2016 Census. Sure, there may be partial explanations for some of these statistics. Winnipeg’s population is spread over a geographically large area relative to other major cities, so perhaps more organizations are needed to service these areas. Maybe we have more issues causing a higher need for work to be done. Our affordable rent and low living expenses might also have something to do with it. Irrespective of such justifications, this crude analysis clearly indicates something. What is it about Winnipeg that has all these organizations choosing to set up shop in our city? We’re a far distance from the allures of the Pacific Ocean, we’ve not been blessed with an ultra-cool European vibe, yet the density of Winnipeg’s charity sector is on par (and then some) with Vancouver and Montreal. We don’t have the benefit of hosting our nation’s Parliament or offering a short-ish train ride to Toronto, Montreal, or New York, yet we host significantly more welfare organizations than Ottawa.

Proven Generosity To what do we owe the presence of all these welfare organizations? It might have something to do with the fact that Manitobans as a province are consistently the most generous Canadians with their money. Each year, the Fraser Institute's Annual Generosity Index analyzes Statistics Canada data (from 2 years prior) to determine the percentage of tax filers in each province and territory that donate to charities as well as the average percentage of aggregate income that these tax filers donated. Last months’ newly-released index extended Manitoba’s rule in both categories to 12 years running, excluding when PEI had a 0.3% higher proportion of tax filers donating to charity in 2008... But fine. For 11 of the past 12 years, Manitoba has had the highest percentage of tax-paying people donating to charity. Over the years, this figure has averaged from 24-28% or about 1 in every 4 tax-paying Manitobans. And for all previous 12 years, these tax-paying citizens have consistently given a greater share of their income to charity than any other province or territory’s tax-filing citizens (take that, PEI!). What ultimately sets our city apart, however, is the people who comprise it. Winnipeg is unique, demographically. Our city has the largest Indigenous population, the second-highest proportion of new immigrants (second only to Regina), and in both 2013 and 2014, Manitoba had the highest number of refugees per capita in Canada.

Much Love to Michael Champagne But it’s not just who Winnipeggers are, it’s what they’re doing—and all that they’re doing—that makes Winnipeg a human rights hotspot. Firstly, there is an abundance of Indigenous peoples in Winnipeg striving to rid our city and nation of the longstanding complacency that’s allowed discriminatory practices, laws, and systems to persist for far too long. In her piece on Winnipeg’s racism, Macdonald briefly acknowledged both Michael Champagne and Meet Me at the Bell Tower, the now-weekly anti-violence community rally Michael started, as an example of young activists taking action. There is so much more that could—and should—be said, however, about the work Michael is doing in Winnipeg. First, he co-founded Aboriginal Youth Opportunities (AYO!), who hosts the Bell Tower rally every Friday (and has for the last six years!). AYO! has spearheaded several other initiatives, including #WaterWednesdays, which is a weekly summer event to raise awareness about water issues, the annual “100 Basketballs” giveaway for inner city kids, and, this past summer, a spinoff event to donate soccer balls to kids as well. Michael is a tireless organizer and spokesperson: he frequently speaks in schools, hosts events and rallies, and sits on multiple boards. Last month, he was one of seven people appointed to Manitoba Child and Family Services’ Legislative Review Committee. He’s been recognized by TIME Magazine as a Next Generation Leader, and it’s easy to understand why when you hear him speak.

Here’s an excerpt from Michael’s speech at last years’ Walrus Talks: National Tour: And I think what Canada 150, more than anything else, has shown me is what our capacity is as a country to collectively share the same message, to collectively celebrate together... I challenge you to take the same love that you’re pouring into Canada 150 and pour it onto the Indigenous relatives from your territory, the families that need our help and our support, the young people that need that hope. Don’t tell me it’s not possible, because you’re doing it today.”

One Summit → Our Summit Shortly after Macdonald’s piece was published in 2015, Mayor Bowman organized a national summit on racial inclusion. Many people, however, felt the summit’s price of $50/person ($25/students) was exclusionary. Indigenous advocates Lenard Monkman and Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie decided to organize “Our Summit”, a free alternative event for Winnipeggers to gather, identify issues impacted by racism, and discuss ways to move forward. At this event, 13 key issues were identified, and from this event, 13 Fires Winnipeg was born. For the next 13 months, monthly events focused on the issues identified, ranging from nutrition and food security to child and family services. 13 Fires Winnipeg isn’t the only initiative that Lenard and Sadie-Phoenix have spearheaded. They are both co-founders of Red Rising Magazine, an unfiltered and uncensored Indigenous space to share stories, thoughts, and artwork. Their seven issues to date have focused on everything from empowerment to water to love, and the forthcoming issue is dedicated to the resiliency and beauty of Indigenous languages. With nearly 15,000 likes on Facebook already and issue launches held in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto, this magazine has demonstrated that such a space was sorely needed, and is now filling that gap and inspiring creativity across the country. Both Sadie-Phoenix and Lenard wear several other hats around the city. Sadie-Phoenix is also the Community Coordinator at Wa Ni Ska Tan Hydro Alliance, an alliance of hydro-affected communities in northern Manitoba, and is the National Representative of First Nation, Metis, and Inuit Students at the Canadian Federation of Students. It was Lenard who launched AYO!’s 100 Basketballs program; he’s also an Associate Producer for CBC Indigenous.

Other Indigenous Influencers Champagne, Lavoie, and Monkman are three prominent Indigenous voices in Winnipeg, but there are countless others. Althea Guiboche, aka the “Got Bannock Lady”, hands out bannock and soup to people in need twice a month downtown. Clayton Thomas-Müller, an organizer with and author of forthcoming book “Life in the City of Dirty Water,” writes and speaks about environmental and climate justice all around the world. Clayton was deemed one of the top 30 activists under 30 in the United States by Utne Reader in the early 2000s. Anishinaabe musician Leonard Sumner’s powerful spoken word piece “I Know You’re Sorry” provided a powerful response to Canada’s many apologies. Another spoken word artist, Mary Black’s piece on the struggles of Indigenous women, went viral in February 2016. Rick Harp’s weekly Indigenous current affairs roundtable podcast, Media Indigena, has over 21,000 followers on Twitter and has become a go-to source for Indigenous news in Canada. Bernadette Smith, in addition to serving as the NDP MLA for Point Douglas, is also the founder of Drag the Red, a group started in 2014 that searches the riverbank and bed of the Red River in hopes of uncovering evidence and providing answers to the loved ones of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Another NDP MLA, Nahanni Fontaine, serves St. John's. She's sat on a million different boards—including the Winnipeg Police Advisory Board, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Native Women’s Association of Canada—she also sat on the United Nations Working Group on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and, like Bernadette, is a longstanding advocate for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Wab Kinew, Leader of the Manitoba NDP and Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, is also the author of best-selling memoir, “The Reason You Walk”. Katharena Vermette, whose compelling debut novel “The Break” is a story about life in Winnipeg’s North End, won’s First Novel Award in 2017.

A Changing Relationship with Shoal Lake 40 Winnipeggers’ relationship with Shoal Lake 40 First Nation also demonstrates the changing tide in our city. In the early 1900s, the City of Winnipeg decided to source its water from Shoal Lake with no regard for the Indigenous peoples living on the lake’s shores. Reports from the time declared the area as largely uninhabited, “with the exception of a few Indians.” The City expropriated (stole) ancestral lands from Shoal Lake 40 to build an aqueduct to transport this water to Winnipeg, and forcibly relocated the community onto a peninsula. A canal dug to divert water away from the aqueduct’s intake severed this peninsula from the mainland, displacing the community on a human-made island. For the last century, our city has enjoyed their water, while Shoal Lake 40 has faced access issues as well as a boil-water advisory for the last 21 years. While Shoal Lake 40 has persistently advocated for “Freedom Road”, an all-year access road, it is only in the last few years that Winnipeggers have heartily joined this call for government action. In early 2015, after Winnipeg underwent its own precautionary boil-water advisory for 36 hours, I carried on with the advisory in #Shoalidarity to raise awareness about the community's boil-water advisory. That summer, Rick Harp launched a cheeky $10 million all-or-nothing crowdfunding campaign to fundraise the money that the Harper administration refused to commit to building Freedom Road. While ultimately unsuccessful, more than 1,000 people pledged their support for Freedom Road, with over $100,000 promised. At the same time, churches across Winnipeg were joining Churches for Freedom Road, utilizing their signage to declare messages of support to Shoal Lake 40. When a Winnipeg Walk of Solidarity for Shoal Lake 40 was planned that September, more than 1,000 Winnipeggers—including then-Premier Greg Selinger—turned up. From these and other grassroots efforts, Friends of Shoal Lake 40 was formed. Amongst several other undertakings, members of this coalition have asserted a physical presence at the annual Tripartite Meetings between Shoal Lake 40, the City of Winnipeg, and the Province for the last several years. See, in the late 1980s, Shoal Lake 40 decided to develop some of its lands to be sold as cabin lots to allow the community to remain economically viable. There was one problem, however: These lots would require a service road, and as this road would pass through the very land Winnipeg had stolen from Shoal Lake 40 decades earlier, the community was required to obtain the City’s permission to build the road. Winnipeg denied this permission stating the road would be too close to Winnipeg’s water supply. In lieu of allowing this economic development, the City and Province agreed to make a one-time payment into a trust fund and allow Shoal Lake 40 to use the meagre interest derived from this capital. As part of this agreement, the three parties meet each year and take turns hosting the meeting. For the first 25 years, the meetings more-or-less followed a similar pattern: documentation of hardships and deaths accompanied by underwhelming inaction. But in December 2015, things changed.

A Historic Moment Just one year earlier, Winnipeggers had rallied outside of the Legislative Building on a cold wintery day to show support for Shoal Lake 40 and to pressure those inside the building to commit funding for Freedom Road. A lot had happened in a year, though. Stephen Harper was gone— hoorah! —and his successor, Justin Trudeau, had tweeted a promise to Shoal Lake 40 during the election season. Both the City and Province had each committed to fronting one-third of the costs of building Freedom Road once the Federal government formalized its commitment to fund the other third. While it was Shoal Lake 40’s turn to host the meeting that year, the community accepted the Province’s invitation to hold the meeting at the Legislative Building again. Instead of protesting outside on the steps, Shoal Lake 40’s allies were welcomed into the building for a post-meeting event. Since it was the community’s turn to host the meeting, it was Chief Erwin Redsky who led the proceedings, opening the event in his language and calling on an Elder. It was Chief Redsky who introduced Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who formally announced the Federal government’s $10 million commitment to support the construction of Freedom Road. For the first time, all three levels of government were committed to funding Freedom Road. The event ended with the echoes of a drum circle reverberating through the Legislature. Standing in the Legislature and watching all four levels of government walk down the steps together, a nation-to-nation relationship was visibly respected. This was reconciliation, or as Minister Bennett deemed it that day, “reconciliaction.” It’s in moments like these that I know what’s happening here in Winnipeg is both special and unique. I won’t deny that our city has pressing needs and issues, but there are extraordinary efforts trying to right our city’s wrongs.

Keeping Winnipeggers Safe Take James Favel, for instance. He’s the Co-Founder of Bear Clan Patrol, an Indigenous-led group that patrols the streets of Northern Winnipeg five nights a week. In August 2014, after 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body was tragically pulled from the Red River, James knew something had to be done. Quitting his job as a semi-truck driver, he relaunched Bear Clan Patrol (an earlier version had formed in the 1990s but went on hiatus after its founder passed away) and began working up to 100-hour weeks with little to no pay. The group walks through the streets, seeking to prevent crime and helping those in need that they encounter along the way. Several patrol members have received first-aid training and are able to respond to fentanyl overdoses. The Bear Clan Patrol has organized search parties for missing people, held healing ceremonies for loved ones when bodies of missing people are found, provided security at community events, and partnered with other groups to hand out food and presents. This past December, when wind chills dropped to -40 in Winnipeg, Bear Clan Patrol was out every evening making sure that nobody was left out in the cold. In 2017 alone, the Patrol picked up close to 4,000 discarded syringes. The Patrol presently has a volunteer body of 800 people and has seen its model replicated across the country.

Locals with Global Impact Not only are Winnipeggers working to improve our city, they’re also making the world a better place. Muuxi Adams, who arrived in Winnipeg in 2004 as a Somali refugee, co-founded Humankind International Inc., which built and supports a school in Dadaab, Kenya, the site of the world’s largest refugee camp. Winnipeg-born Darcy Ataman founded Make Music Matter, an organization working in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo that uses music as a healing tool to help survivors of trauma share their stories. Devin Morrow is presently living in northern Iraq, where she tracks illegal weapons captured from ISIS, and Scott Cairns works with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a UN team that won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its work dismantling Syria’s stockpile of weapons.

Winnipeggers Care So what’s our city’s secret? Winnipeggers care. We’ve seen this spirit demonstrated through simple acts of kindness, like Winnipeg Transit driver Kris DoubleDee's decision to pull over mid-route to give the very shoes off his feet to a person in need. When asked about the incident, the driver claimed it was an automatic response and said, “Anybody would do the same thing." Unfortunately, not everybody would do the same thing. Mitch Bourbonniere might, however. In December 2016, Mitch, who is an original member of the Bear Clan Patrol, received a frantic call that a woman had jumped off a bridge into the Assiniboine River and wasn’t moving. He rushed to the spot, dove in, and saved her life.

Businesses with a Do-Good Flair

Never Too Young The next generation of Winnipeggers have already proven their commitment to social justice as well. 14-year-old Callie Costello started Callie’s Backpacks for Winnipeg’s Homeless, an initiative to fill bags with basic necessities, at the age of 10. Also 14 years old, Atticus McIlraith created a baby formula drive that’s raised over $40,000 to date for Winnipeg Harvest. Now 21 years old, Hannah Taylor founded The Ladybug Foundation Inc. at the age of 8. Since then, the charity has raised around $4 million directly and indirectly, and Hannah has founded another charity, The Ladybug Foundation Education Program Inc. 15-year old Elly Hooker received a Governor General History Award last year for her comic depicting the struggles of Viola Desmond, the first Canadian woman to appear on a Canadian bill. This past winter, Grade 11 student Skylar Ferguson launched a crowdfunding campaign that’s already raised over $5,000 to help families living in Churchill, a northern Manitoba community that faced catastrophic flooding in 2017. Last May, then-Grade 12 student Palvi Saini organized a #FearLessLoveMore rally against Islamophobia that saw hundreds of students march through the streets of Winnipeg.

The Most Winnipegest Winnipegger There is perhaps no single Winnipegger, however, who cares more about this city and the people in it than Ace Burpee, longstanding host of the Ace Burpee Show on 103.1 Virgin Radio. He donates his time to, by no exaggeration, hundreds of charitable events and causes each year. He reps all the local clothing brands (and has even made his own hype shirts for Winnipeg!), makes a list of 100 Fascinating Manitobans every year, and this holiday season, he spent his spare time crafting Christmas ornaments from a waterslide pipe he salvaged from a recently-demolished waterslide park to raise funds for Art City Inc.

The Cold Doesn't Stop Us This spirit thrives even in frigid winter temperatures. Every Valentine’s Day, hundreds of Winnipeggers march through downtown to remember and draw attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Many of those in attendance will lace up their marching boots less than a month later to take part in the International Women’s Day March. Just last month, Winnipeg’s biggest intersection was turned into a giant round dance in the middle of the afternoon to commemorate 5 Years of Idle No More Winnipeg.

Do you see it? Do you see it? Local philanthropist Arthur Mauro does. He believes Winnipeg can become a world hotspot for human rights and is willing to put his money where his mouth is. Arthur recently donated $5 million to the University of Manitoba—$3 million to create a Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice, and $2 million to local and international peace-building efforts. He also donated $1 million to the University in 2001 to found the Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice. Stuart Murray, the inaugural Director/CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, sees it. He’s developing a new initiative called The City of Human Rights Education (COHRE) to promote Winnipeg’s human rights assets and infrastructure on an international stage. I see it. That’s why I started Human Rights Hub Winnipeg, an initiative promoting the efforts of our city’s vibrant human rights sector. In 2017 alone, our events calendar displayed 1,092 human rights-related events in Winnipeg—roughly 3 events per day.

The Human Rights Capital of Canada Of course, Winnipeg does not have a monopoly on human rights actions in Canada. Edmonton has joined cities around the world in becoming an official “human rights city”, an initiative which commits the municipality to instantiate human rights standards into its laws and policies (although Manitobans for Human Rights is working to have Winnipeg designated as a human rights city as well!). The city of Vancouver has embraced Indigenous art and culture in its public spaces in a way that Winnipeg has yet to match. There are many actions across our country worth noting. An overwhelming amount, however, seem to occur—and often originate—in Winnipeg.

  1. Winnipeg was the first city in North America to sign onto the UN Global Safe Cities Initiative to reduce sexual violence against women and girls

  2. Manitoba was the first province to recognize Dwarfism Awareness Day

  3. The Winnipeg Jets were the first NHL team to begin acknowledging the traditional land it plays on at each home game

  4. The University of Winnipeg (U of W) was one of the first universities in Canada (alongside Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University) to create an Indigenous course requirement for all incoming undergraduate students.

  5. The U of W’s Global College offers the only human rights undergraduate degree in Western Canada

  6. The U of W’s campus was the first in Canada to ban the sale of bottled water back in 2009. Winnipeg is home to an incredibly passionate and powerful crew of world-changers. It hosts local, national, and international organizations, who together comprise the densest charitable sector in Canada. It houses countless local businesses that are infusing the hearty, generous spirit that embodies our city into their work. It's comprised of a diverse mix of people, from near and far, whose generosity continues to set a high bar for the rest of Canada to follow. Winnipeg is cultivating passion and creativity, sparking new solutions to old problems. Our city is fostering dedication, courage, and tenacity to carry out these ideas from pipe dreams to finished products. While some Winnipeggers continue to perpetuate stereotypes and remain part of the problem, much more are seeking to be part of the solution, challenging themselves and their city to be better. Winnipeg is so much more than its weather and its problems. It’s the epicentre of human rights activities in Canada. Many Winnipeggers know this, but it’s about time the rest of Canada knew it too. Christie McLeod is the Founder and Managing Director of Human Rights Hub Winnipeg and is a second-year law student at Osgoode Hall Law School. 


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