Winnipeg has the highest indigenous urban population in Canada, and ranks highest among rates for violent crime. Image via.
Following the discovery of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body in the Red River near the Alexander Docks in downtown Winnipeg on Aug. 17, the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women was once again thrust into the national spotlight. And as VICE reported, on August 21 thousands took to the streets of Winnipeg as part of a vigil march to honour the memory of the murdered girl.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has infamously dismissed the international attention that has been drawn to the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada by saying there weren’t any sociological issues behind the wave of deaths and disappearances.
“We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon,” Harper told reporters in Whitehorse, Yukon on Aug. 21. “We should view it as a crime.”
Reaction to Harper’s comments, and his continued refusal to call a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, sparked a reaction across the country. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau called Harper out, saying the Prime Minister is “on the wrong side of history.” Still, others believe that an inquiry alone will do nothing to solve the systemic problems behind the issue.
“When I think about what is the actual root of what’s going on, I think it’s the oversight of Canadians to help their own,” Michael Champagne, an indigenous youth leader in Winnipeg, told VICE at Fontaine’s vigil.
On the political front in Winnipeg, (a city which boasts the highest aboriginal urban population in Canada, yet also ranks highest in the country among rates for violent crime), Fontaine’s murder brought more attention to indigenous issues in mayoral campaigns than the city has ever seen.
“Since this campaign got serious, nearly every week we’ve seen candidates talking about indigenous issues,” Mary Agnes Welch wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press Sept. 10. With Winnipeggers going to the polls Oct. 22, VICE decided to contact the four front running mayoral candidates to see what they would do to tackle the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Winnipeg.
Wasylycia-Leis is the current poll leader in a mayoral race that is still far from decided. The former NDP MLA and MP has long been an advocate for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
“It’s an issue that has been pursued actively over past ten years,” Wasylycia-Leis told VICE Wednesday morning. “But little action has been forthcoming, from all levels of government.”
While Wasylycia-Leis supports the call for a national inquiry, it is an issue that she intends to tackle on a local level if elected mayor in October.
“The mayor of this city needs to be upfront and centre walking with our sisters,” she told VICE. “Public involvement demonstrates to the population that this is a critical issue that we need to take on as a community. We may have limited [municipal] powers, but we need to stand with our sisters as a priority.”
Wasylycia-Leis also spoke to the need for an improved teen-runaway strategy in the city, and calls for the city’s police to take a leadership role in organizing a unified, national police voice in calling and enforcing the results of an inquiry.
“I’ve been to far too many vigils over the past decade,” said Wasylycia-Leis. “Tina Fontaine’s murder, for me and so many others in this country—it was the last straw.”
Former city councilor Gord Steeves was regarded early on as the frontrunner to beat. But his campaign has been suffering on a number of fronts. Brian Bowman’s campaign (more on that later) has been more effective at reaching younger middle-to-right voters, and at offering progressive ideas for the future of Winnipeg, where Steeves seems to be targeting the base of voters that outgoing Mayor Sam Katz has historically relied upon.
But the revelation of a racist Facebook post from Steeves’ wife Lorrie in which she ranted about “drunk native guys” on welfare threw an uncomfortable spotlight on Steeves’s campaign. As Agnes Welch of the Free Press again pointed out, Lorrie Steeves’s post, “Exposed the deep lack of empathy and misinformation that still stymies reconciliation. [And] many in Winnipeg share her views.”
While Steeves has tried to explain away his wife’s racist comments, his own policy proposals for a “safer downtown” Winnipeg seem to be drawn from the same misinformed well, focusing on “reducing crime” and further criminalizing already marginalized populations by “ban[ning] boulevard begging.” As Robert-Falcon Ouellette pointed out to VICE, these “safety proposals” are designed to satisfy the fears of a population that is already safe downtown: suburban, largely white Winnipeggers who only venture downtown for Jets games, concert events, or to shop.
Steeves’s media contact declined VICE’s request for comment on missing and murdered aboriginal women, or to clarify how he would propose to make downtown Winnipeg safer for aboriginal women as well as suburban families. This has been on par with his responses to media in general when asked about indigenous issues.
Brian Bowman, who represents a solid right-centre alternative to Gord Steeves, is a young lawyer who has been involved in community development. Bowman, who self-identifies as Métis, is quick to highlight his work on the board at Ka Ni Kanichik: an indigenous, community-based organization.
“There are some people [in Winnipeg] who see a growing indigenous population as a negative,” Bowman told VICE on Wednesday. “That’s ridiculous. We need to do better as a community to allow everyone, regardless of ethnicity, race, or economic background, to reach their full potential.”
With regard to missing and murdered aboriginal women, Bowman told VICE: “We have to recognize that this is not just a criminal matter. This is a sociological issue. We need to provide supports for law enforcement to protect our most vulnerable in our community. We need to look at where the supports within the community are that can allow a place of sanctuary and support for those affected by violence and other crimes.”
“A disproportionate number of those people are aboriginal women and girls,” he said. “Statistically, they are more vulnerable. We need to work with the federal and provincial governments, and community groups like Ka Ni Kanichik to address the problem in a meaningful way.”
However, Bowman says that while he is “open” to the idea of national inquiry into the issue, “I don’t think that it would be adequate to address it. What I’m focused on as a potential mayor at what can the city do.”
Early in his mayoral campaign, Ouellette, an administrator of Aboriginal Focus Programs at the University of Manitoba who self-identifies to both Cree and Métis backgrounds, brought attention to the deep-seated racism in Winnipeg when he spoke out against racist attacks he was receiving on Facebook and via email. Since then, he’s remained outspoken about the need to reconcile what he calls a “divided city.”
“When you’re talking about the problem of murdered and missing aboriginal women, you’re talking about a sociological problem,” Ouellette told VICE on Tuesday. Ouellette was quick to note that while downtown Winnipeg may be “dangerous” to people who are vulnerable, putting more people—be they more cops, cadets, or drones (as Steeves has suggested)—won’t make the community safer.
“The people who are already doing that job are doing it well,” Ouellette said. “The problems are far deeper than just having people walk around [to patrol].”
Ouellette spoke to issues around Child & Family Services and the lack of trust many in the indigenous community feel towards an organization that he says is systemically flawed. But, as a city administrator, Ouellette’s priority would be to grow downtown into a community, in much the same manner as Bowman proposed—by increasing density and economic opportunity, while supporting organizations that provide supports for vulnerable peoples.
As for a national inquiry into missing and murdered women?
“If they were to do one, they would actually need someone in place who would be willing to challenge both sides of the debate, both the indigenous and the western, or Canadian, leadership,” Ouellette told VICE. “[But] study without action is essentially doing nothing. The problem with the Canadian system is a lot of times, politicians feel an inability to actually go out there and make change, or propose different ways of doing things. Because [of] entrenched interests within systems, it’s very hard to go about changing it.”
All three of the mayoral candidates VICE spoke to, as well as other fringe contenders, have recently promised to unveil further policy proposals with regard to indigenous issues in the coming weeks. Winnipeg’s municipal election will be held Oct. 22.