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Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/CSM Staff
An Indigenous mural fills the front of a building in the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 11, 2022.
First Nations in Winnipeg are rethinking their history with the powerful Hudson Bay Company, says the Christian Science Monitor.

It may take a long time, but it’s possible for wrongs to be righted. At least a bit.

Sara Miller Llana reports at the Christian Science Monitor on how the indigenous people of Winnipeg, Canada, are moving toward a new future as they rethink their history with the exploitive Hudson Bay Company and the fur trade.

“After the Hudson’s Bay Co. department store shuttered its hulking, 650,000-plus-square-foot building in downtown Winnipeg in 2020,” she writes, “Peatr Thomas was asked to replicate one of his murals in the empty windows.

“The Inninew and Anishnaabe artist at first hesitated. If any entity casts a colonial shadow in Canada, it is the Hudson’s Bay Co.

“Established in 1670 by the king of England, the HBC existed for centuries as a fur trading enterprise that upended the lives of First Nations as it aggressively expanded into what would later become Canada. Mr. Thomas didn’t want to be affiliated.

“At the same time, the flagship store in Winnipeg looms large — physically and in historical relevance. Mr. Thomas saw an opportunity to share his vision of a ‘new future,’ he says, ‘built on truth.’

“Today his vibrant mural, ‘Aski Pimachi Iwew,’ reflects back the story of the earth’s renewal. Animals painted in black, upon a red background representing dawn, depict the seven ancestor teachings of ‘Turtle Island,’ what many Indigenous people call North America: love, wisdom, respect, courage, honesty, humility, and truth. …

“His mural would be a taste of what’s to come to downtown Winnipeg. Since April, colorful flags and banners have enlivened the building’s drab neoclassical facade, installed by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), which represents 34 First Nations groups in southern Manitoba.

“This spring HBC, now a holding company that owns businesses and investments including Saks Fifth Avenue, transferred the building to the SCO. The Indigenous leaders plan to turn it into a multifaceted facility centered around low-income housing for the urban Indigenous community, as well as restaurants, pop-up stores, and space for artists. It will also become the new seat of SCO governance.

“At a time when Canada says that Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is a driving goal at the highest levels of government, the transfer of a colonial icon to Indigenous leaders resonates with symbolism. …

“ ‘I think it was important for us to let it be known that this is the change that’s coming,’ says Jerry Daniels, the grand chief of the SCO, whose offices are currently based on the industrial outskirts of Winnipeg near the airport. ‘This is what Reconciliation is.’ …

“HBC is Canada’s oldest company. It was chartered in 1670 by King Charles II, after two fur traders convinced him that a base on the shores of the Hudson Bay would provide direct access to the beaver pelts so popular in Europe at the time.

“HBC would come to rule over trapping grounds that represent a third of Canada today. And in its pursuit it would drive settlement across the continent, acting as a de facto government and disrupting communities that had been self-sustaining with their own sophisticated trade networks and diplomatic ties to one another. …

“In an elaborate ceremony, Grand Chief Daniels, in a beaded headdress, transferred two beaver pelts and two elk hides, the traditional ‘rent’ under the original charter, to the governor of HBC, New York business executive Richard Baker.

“Sophia Smoke was invited there as the oral historian. She’s an eloquent 14-year-old from Dakota Plains Wahpeton First Nation in Manitoba. … She addressed the crowd in the Dakota language, which her grandmother taught her, before continuing in English. ‘Today there is no mistaking, we are changing the course of history for good,’ she told the crowd. …

“Today, Winnipeg counts the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada with over 92,000 (in a population of 750,000). It has led to a vibrant Indigenous social and cultural scene that is increasingly present on the cityscape. But the economic reality of Indigenous peoples, dispossessed from their lands, also comes into stark view here.

“According to the latest census figures, 31% of Indigenous people in Winnipeg live below the low-income threshold, compared with 13% of the non-Indigenous population. Homelessness is a major problem for the city, and 66% of those in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and safe spaces identify as Indigenous. Child poverty is the highest of any province. …

“Mr. Daniels, from Long Plain First Nation, says he experienced much turbulence growing up, part of the child welfare system for a while. He says providing stable housing will have a ripple effect on the community that’s suffered poverty and intergenerational trauma, especially from the residential schooling system.

“ ‘Families are built on the stability of their grandparents and their great-grandparents who were able to provide the knowledge and the love and support to engage in different areas,’ he says. ‘We didn’t have that opportunity.’ …

“Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn is meant to be a vibrant hub, with two restaurants and community space. It will showcase Indigenous art and culture and include a museum that tells the role that Indigenous people played in the founding of HBC from their perspective.

“The building reinforces a transformation already underway in Winnipeg. There is Qaumajuq, billed as the largest Inuit art center in the world, that opened last year. There is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which dedicates a significant portion of its permanent display to the truth about Canada’s violent assimilationist policies. Indigenous murals, sculpture, and gardens color the cityscape. …

“The new project could become a model for other Canadian cities and landmarks, says Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign minister and former president of the University of Winnipeg who is an adviser on this project. … ‘This project dispels the idea of Native people being dependent on welfare and all those kinds of stereotypes. No, they are entrepreneurs, they are activists doing important things, and they can manage a big project.’

“Stephen Bown, author of the book The Company, which tells the story of the first 200 years of HBC, says the Winnipeg project in some ways takes history full circle. ‘The amount of Indigenous involvement in that business often goes unrecognized,’ he says.

“While run from London, HBC on the ground depended on the knowledge, savvy, and goodwill of the Indigenous inhabitants. ‘That began right from the very, very beginning. … The symbolic significance could be that the company is returning maybe in one sense to its roots as an Indigenous-run thing.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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winnipeg-indigenous-accord-signing

Photo: Walther Bernal/CBC
Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation Chief Lance Roulette signed Winnipeg’s Indigenous Accord in June. The new treaty addresses tribal representation in numerous aspects of life.

The “truth and reconciliation” initiatives in South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released from jail set a kind of standard for healing old wounds — or at least for moving on. The idea was that nations must bring to the light of day all the bad things that were done and give everyone a chance to express their pain. After that, acceptance and reconciliation can begin.

A similar process is happening in Canada to heal the injustices done to tribes. One example is in Winnipeg, where the lung association, an arts organization, and many others are working to make amends for the past and create a better future.

Aidan Geary writes at CBC News, “A Manitoba association created by the agency that once ran segregated ‘Indian hospitals’ in the province is among more than 40 new signatories to Winnipeg’s Indigenous accord. …

“The Lung Association was among dozens of Winnipeg-based groups that added their names to the city’s year-old Indigenous Accord [in June]. Other groups include the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, CentrePort Canada, Investors Group, the Manitoba Museum and the Manitoba College of Social Workers.

“The accord was first signed by more than 80 groups [in March 2017]. Signing on means committing to an ongoing responsibility to reconciliation, the city says. Signatories are required to report yearly on the success of their efforts and their future goals.

“For the Lung Association, it also means addressing a legacy of segregation, substandard care and allegations of mistreatment at the hands of tuberculosis doctors from Indigenous patients, [Neil Johnston, president of the Manitoba Lung Association] said.

” ‘We want to make sure that that … never happens again, and we want to help in the healing of people who have survived that care but also the families and make up for the intergenerational trauma that occurred,’ he said. …

“So far, Johnston said its goals include examining and establishing the association’s own history, and speaking to people who experienced the hospitals themselves. From there, the association will work with Indigenous community members to form a plan for reconciliation and improved health outcomes. …

“Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman urged more organizations to sign on, calling the accord an ‘aspirational document’ and an ongoing effort. … ‘We have created a website in which organizations can submit their outcomes on an annual basis and report on what they’re going to work on, and that’s shared publicly so there can be that learning within the community.’ …

“Carol Phillips, executive director of the Winnipeg Arts Council — which signed on in the first year of the accord — said her organization will launch a new Indigenous arts leadership fellowship program this fall, placing two Indigenous fellows into arts organizations to develop management and governance skills.

“She said Indigenous people are underrepresented in leadership positions in arts groups across the country, with the exception of Indigenous-focused arts organizations. She said she’s seen improvement on that front, but not enough.

” ‘There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be Indigenous arts leaders in any arts organization, and that’s ultimately what we want to see happen,’ she said.

“The WAC will also place an Indigenous artist-in-residence in the city’s Indigenous Relations department, she said.

“Values around reconciliation have long been a part of the arts council’s work, she said. But she said it’s important to demonstrate those values and make them clear to the community.

” ‘The city obviously wants an overt demonstration of commitment, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, so we participated,’ she said.

” ‘The thing is, here we are still talking about the sort of exceptionalism of this situation. Our goal is that this is just how things are, and it’s not an exception — it’s how the arts community functions.’ ”

More at CBC, here.

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