Overcoming Ignorance for Universal Dignity

Overcoming Ignorance for Universal Dignity

by Johsa Manzanilla

There is a silent apartheid in Winnipeg. It is an apartheid based on fear and ignorance, which segregates, isolates and discriminates on the grounds of race.

Although Winnipeg has been heralded as a city that fosters multiculturalism, evident in the diversity of backgrounds that make up our social fabric and the numerous festivals, community associations and committees that focus on the development of a culturally pluralistic society, there is nevertheless an oppression that exists. And unfortunately, because there are some in our community that are not informed or knowledgeable of the history and the issues involved, the systemic discrimination grows as people either turn a blind eye or make prejudiced biases that do nothing but destroy our integrity as supposedly welcoming and inclusive citizens.

A few months back, I was chatting with a friend of mine who had recently immigrated to Canada from the Philippines. Like myself, she is a socially conscious individual who believes in the championing of social justice causes such as human rights, freedom and equality for all. What struck me, however, was her inability to understand the situation of Aboriginal people here in Canada. She had a very narrow knowledge base of Aboriginal history as affected by European colonization, and thus could only bear witness to the destructive effects of such a system without realizing the horribly oppressive and imperialist undertones. She admitted that all she knew about the Native population in Winnipeg was what she saw on the street in the inner city: abject poverty, violence and substance abuse. She wanted to know more, so I briefed her as much as I could and then pointed her in the direction of more socially aware campaigns and resources.

The sad reality is that too many people see what my friend sees on the streets, but nothing else. Many do not have the desire to educated themselves as to why Aboriginal people are overrepresented among the poor, what policies have isolated them to the point that their poverty and social exclusion become intergenerational, cyclical and hard to escape from. There is a need to transform the inner city and the social issues affecting and destroying these people. But there is also a need to change the perceptions in our community that block us from uniting and working together to support them as allies in the struggle. This change begins with inquiry on what founds the problems Aboriginal people face today, and I hope to help pique your self-interest in the matter.

While I cannot go into extensive detail into the history of Aboriginal people in Canada, I will note that it is important to realize just how destructive colonization was on their livelihood and culture. Admittedly, there was a sense of integration with the trading system, technology and a new form of urban development, however much of the integration was nevertheless rooted in “taking the Indian out of the Indian” with shockingly violent (physically, psychologically and socially with regards to the Aboriginal family and community) residential educational programs, the ostracization of Natives on reserves with no running water or infrastructure to support waste and clean-up, and limited opportunities of advancement with the creation of generational dependence on welfare.

The result of such undermining oppression is the insufficient incomes and thus insufficient food, clothing and shelter options for many in the urban Aboriginal population. When one does not have many choices, it affects one’s self-respect, dignity, self-esteem, and confidence. And while there are numerous social programs that have been enacted to support families and individuals who do not have much choice, they are still not enough to combat the internalized oppression, vulnerability and shame that develops from such poverty—a sense that the longer you stay poor, the worse it gets.

So what can one do to help support our Aboriginal friends and neighbours? The first thing is to truly have an understanding of what exactly the population affected has been going through. It’s not just about reading articles, resources, statistics and data, but it’s about the realities of people and their experiences. Talk to them. Learn from them. Support their right to have opportunities, which, while we in our community often take for granted, are so powerful. Education matters, so value it.

One final and perhaps most important thing that we can do to support the campaign to end the silent apartheid is by not being silent and combating racist perceptions when we encounter it. If we ever hear racist discourse being spoken in our classrooms, churches, social gatherings, or in the community, we must be fearless and speak out to break the cycle of negativity. The smallest and most effective way one can change the world is by changing one’s attitude. Start a revolution of change.