The chill wind of fall knifes down the wide sidewalk, whipping dust and torn newspapers into tight little eddies. A boarded-up store stares out at the street. Close by, a pawnshop’s shoddy merchandise peers out from a smudgy window. A neighboring sign states, as if in answer to the surrounding desolation, that Jesus Saves. Outside the National Hotel, a group of men huddle together, leaning in close as if supporting one another. They have the slow movements of men with time on their hands. One of their number sits on the sidewalk, the hotel wall as a backrest. A familiar scene. It could be the main street in the dying downtown of any northern American industrial city. But this is Main Street, Winnipeg, the fifth largest city in Canada. From the corner of Portage and Main, down past the swank city hall and Centennial cultural complex, to an indeterminate fade-out in the city’s north end, lies a swelling ghetto of poverty, alcoholism, and crime—an island of despair for thousands of native Canadians.
This bleak picture of Winnipeg’s downtown core, which triggered cries of outrage from more affluent Winnipeg-
gers, was graphically illustrated in a recent report prepared for the city by the Peter Barnard Associates consultant firm in conjunction with federal, provincial and city planners. The study, which details a downtown area it says is experiencing a decline unprecedented in Canada, notes that non-Indians are fleeing the area to the suburbs in increasing numbers, while the native population, growing at the rate of 1,000 a year, rose 600 per cent from 1961 to 1971. Blaming the city for lack of a proper housing policy, the report notes that the core is spreading and could turn into a crime-ridden wasteland if nothing is done. The report estimates the city’s native population is as high as 80,000 out of a total population of close to 600,000—no one knows what percentage actually lives in the inner city— and forecasts this figure could double by 1986. Native organizations angrily reacted that their people were being stereotyped as poverty-stricken drunkards and city officials pooh-poohed the report as an exaggeration. But to those intimately concerned with the Main Street ghetto, the situation couldn’t be worse.
John Rodgers, the rugged 47-year-old executive director of the Main Street Project, a detoxication centre and crisis intervention unit, has seen his case load grow from a “tame” 6,000 drunk incidents—65 per cent non-native—in 1975, to 24,000—80 per cent native—last year. Thirty-three per cent of the latter figure were women, many of them single parents. Rodgers and his staff of 30, who intervene in street brawls, attempted rapes, and family disputes, see the degrading results of the cycle of poverty, drinking, and crime which overtakes many Indians who drift to the city from the hopelessness of rural reserves, and can’t get jobs because of discrimination and lack of skills.
The door to the offices of his provincially funded project have been kicked in countless times. Inside, on any night, 60 or 70 drunks are asleep. Quite a few are there in daytime, too. “We get a lot of trouble from a few,” says Rodgers, stroking his grey-flecked beard. “We have the choice of calling the cops and having them locked up, taking them down a side street and kicking their heads in, or kicking them out. We kick some out. At night we lock the door,” adds Rodgers, who refuses to help known criminals.“At least we know that way those inside are safe and won’t get into trouble.”
Murder has been committed for as little as $3. Rodgers says the assault victims are often older non-Indian men who visit the beer parlors to pick up Indian women. They’re led to an alley or apartment where they get mugged.
“Seagulls” are another problem, he adds, staring at his bookshelves, which sport the Bible, books on alcoholism treatment, a gun, and cans of fluid used by sniffers. “The seagull is the well-off white guy who cruises the strip in his car, looking for an Indian boy or girl who’ll perform a sexual act, maybe for just a dollar.”
The police work closely with Rodgers and his staff. When he isn’t sending his problems to them, they’re sending theirs to him. They are rarely the target for assault and report that most native attacks are against their own people. They tackle the job with a resigned cynicism. Said one exasperated senior officer: “The only solution to the problem I can think of is to drop a bomb on the whole area.”
The Winnipeg situation, although the most visible of any Canadian city, is far from unique. Other cities are also having to tackle an influx of Indians from reserves and they scarcely fare better.
In Regina, where the per-capita crime rate is the highest in the nation, native people are blamed for a disproportion-
ate share. Charges of racism have been prominent recently. City Alderman Nick Iannone, talking of encouraging the education of Indians, was reported as saying: “If you can’t read or write, there are only two things left for enjoyment: sex and drink.” And native groups, carefully documenting eight alleged incidents of police brutality against their people, unsuccessfully requested a provincial public inquiry.
In Vancouver, where the B.C. government has suggested moving Indians out from the skid-road area back to the reserves, natives are not only prey to the alcohol-crime syndrome but are caught up in that city’s serious drug problem. Friction and even outright violence between natives and non-Indians are on the increase, according to one social worker, who sees a “potential for the whole situation to explode.”
The official Winnipeg attitude to its inner-city plight was put by environment commissioner Dave Henderson, who reported this month that a “massive input of public and private initiative has successfully arrested the physical deterioration.” But critics maintain this “input” has been in the shape of large commercial complexes, which do not benefit the Indians. All three levels of government get brickbats for their approach to the problem. (The federal government, which is responsible for treaty Indians on reserves, has been trying to hand over part of the job to provincial authorities, who take over when the natives reach the city. The city, with provincial funding, is responsible for urban Indians.)
Lloyd Axworthy, director of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies, says the federal government should launch a massive program to improve housing and initiate economic activity on reserves to stem the flow of young, restless natives to the city. As for the urban core, Axworthy’s answer is the creation of a development corporation to raise public and private money to establish businesses which would train and deploy area residents.
For well over a year, the city and province have been discussing creation of a $l-million fund to buy and upgrade
single-family dwellings downtown, most of them owned by non-native landlords. But not one house has yet been acquired. Significantly, not a single member of the city’s all-powerful Executive Policy Committee represents the downtown area. Politically, the power is in the suburbs and about the only time most suburbanites visit the Main Street area is when they go to the Centennial cultural complex. “Right now there’s no real threat to white society because these people are too busy killing themselves,” says John Rodgers.
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