By ALON WEINBERG
I am grateful that in the last edition of the Post, in the Short Takes editorial section (Dec 26), Bernie brought up the unspoken anxieties around Kapyong Barracks’ potential conversion into an Aboriginal-owned and operated urban reserve, hinting at underlying Jewish-Native tensions in relation to the large Jewish population living near the barracks.
I think it is important to clear the air a bit regarding urban reserves but also to go further in challenging the roots of any stigma that may be attached to this or any other Aboriginal project.
Urban reserves have been written about recently in the Winnipeg Free Press and information is readily available on many websites about how they function and what purpose they serve both in the Aboriginal community and to the broader, diverse society-at-large. Evidence from places like Saskatoon, Regina, Kelowna and several other towns and cities across Canada have shown that urban reserves are a much needed boost for an economically deprived - or oppressed if you look at the longer economic tools used to dispossess Aboriginal peoples in Canada - people. Look further and evidence suggests that urban reserves generate business activity for the larger economy as a whole and are thus a net benefit to the community. Unfortunately, there is a misnomer out there that an urban reserve replicates the living conditions of a First Nation, which is not only impossible given the different geographic and demographic landscape of a city like Winnipeg, but furthermore it is patently false.
But let’s consider for a moment that an urban reserve was to provide not only business but also housing opportunities for First Nations people. What would be wrong at all about using what can be used of the old housing stock at Kapyong, while creating a state of the art, socially- and ecologically- conscious community built around public spaces and Aboriginal businesses? That this should even be considered a problem, in my opinion, suggests that Winnipeg is a culturally and ethnically segregated city. For the most part the Jewish community has moved en masse, within a relatively short time frame, south of the Assiniboine River, or at least south of the tracks that separate downtown from the north end. I understand a community’s members wanting to live in close proximity to each other, and there are many such enclaves across the city rich with one or two particular ethnic groups. But these areas are enriched as well by their diversity. Winnipeg’s Jews thrived over the community’s first century here in Manitoba because we have been part of an ethnically diverse tapestry forming character neighbourhoods - like the now mostly abandoned, storied north end - and for members of our community to wish to keep an “other” out would of course not only be prejudiced and bigoted, it would suggest we have failed to learn from or even remember our own history.
There was a time when Jews were not allowed to own cottages up at Victoria Beach and elsewhere east of Lake Winnipeg. Jews could not belong to certain golf or country clubs, and were excluded from other walks of life. But we persevered and managed to integrate more into the society at large, fighting for the right to be equal. There will come a day in Winnipeg’s relatively near future when the Aboriginal population will represent a third of the population, and eventually even half. It’s a demographic matter-of-time. I would hope our community’s members will be leading voices on integrating urban Aboriginal people into the society at large, and fighting the social and economic segregation, just as many Jews fought formal segregation of African Americans in the US south. Sure, there have been isolated cases of Antisemitism from Ahenekew to some of Terry Nelson’s words, and yes, I know of an Aboriginal man accompanying a Jewish fellow to a large Jewish synagogue one Shabbat - to learn about our ways - who was asked to leave by the shul’s president. But deeper than this Jews and Aboriginal peoples share a lot more than divides us, from a history of oppression, to a great sense of humour, to ancient Earth-honouring rituals and beliefs. We have much work to do, the rich work coming from sharing dialogue, sharing food, sharing rituals. The first step is starting to understand the roots of Aboriginal claims to Kapyong, learning more about Aboriginal legal and political history. Right behind that is getting to know more people in the Aboriginal community, and understanding the best of their aspirations, not continuing to buy into tired old stereotypes furthered in the media and in mean-spirited policies coming from the federal government.
I would hope many members of the Jewish community take this project on in earnest. We should not only support an urban reserve at Kapyong barracks, but we should help invest in it if needed, listen to the plans, and suggest when we can the best practices to help this project succeed. In coming weeks I will be writing more in depth about Jewish-Native relations and the great potential for even more solidarity, understanding, and friendship between the two communities.
Chi Migwech / all our relations