Many people will argue that Selkirk Avenue in the North End is the epicentre of cultural resurgence and educational opportunities for Indigenous people in the inner city. It hasn’t always been this way. The inner city of Winnipeg has always been characterized by racialized poverty; it is also known for its eastern European roots and as a benchmark for industrial development in Winnipeg’s birth as a city. Selkirk Ave is now at the forefront in Canada for community organizing, transformative educational initiatives and development. The manifestation of these spaces has been made possible through the resiliency of Indigenous women who have sacrificed blood, sweat and tears for later generations. As much as our mothers and grandmothers have kept our communities strong and alive, our cultural practices and ways of being have also kept us alive since time immemorial. It is because of ceremony, and the resilient spirits of Indigenous women in Winnipeg and Manitoba that these transformative educational opportunities exist on Selkirk Ave.
My mother’s story is only one of many Indigenous women who have had to endure extreme barriers to education in Winnipeg. Her journey is unique in terms of the personal stories and experiences that she had; but it reflects the many challenges faced by Indigenous scholars as a whole that had to battle through a racist education system and society that barely treated us as human. As a child she grew up in this system that openly demoralized and embarrassed Indigenous students in classrooms by the misrepresentation of our people and nations in classes like history and social studies. As a young Anishinaabe boy I always looked up to my mother because she was able to graduate with an education degree while raising my brother Craig, among other barriers like transportation and financial challenges. Back then they also didn’t have the technology that we have today to assist in research and writing like laptops, iPads and wifi. In the same way that I looked up to my mother, I also looked up to trailblazers like Myra Laramee, Leslie Spillet, Laara Fitznor, Audrey Richard, Sharon Parentau, and Mary Guilbault. Indigenous women continue to build an educational path for upcoming generations to walk. Their stories are lessons that we can learn from because they struggled 10 times more than we do now in trying to achieve their educational aspirations. If you are ever struggling in school, just remember what our mothers and grandmothers had to go through, and use that as your strength to move forward.
In 2004, I attended a ceremony where elders told us that Selkirk Ave between Salter and McGregor would be the epicentre of cultural resurgence and empowerment for Indigenous people in Winnipeg – maybe even Turtle Island. At the time of that ceremony there was not much happening on Selkirk Ave. In fact, there was a lot of gang activity, violence against women, and police brutality. If you take a look at it now, we have a plethora of educational, cultural, recreational and social opportunities to support us in reaching our goals and to help us find our gifts. At the time of the ceremony I had always found it hard to believe that Selkirk Ave would be the location in which people would thrive, grow, and live peacefully as a community. Here are some examples of the transformative educational and learning opportunities that Selkirk Ave have to offer.
- AYO! MMBT! – Take a look at AYO! and MMBT – the volunteer work that is being done by this group of revolutionaries has ripples of positivity in the inner city and Winnipeg. The anti-violence movement is being used as a model to organize communities in different towns and cities across Canada and the world. PolitixBS develops political literacy and enables youth and community to learn more about the political process, candidates, and engaging the citizens of Winnipeg. Trustee Tuesdays engages school trustees from different school boards from across Winnipeg to raise awareness and give advice to these decision makers. The Indigenous Family Centre is heavily utilized by AYO and the movement continues to grow. HOPE.
- Urban and Inner City Studies Department – The Jim Silver program aka the Urban and Inner City Studies Department of the University of Winnipeg is a transformative educational space that brings together many walks of lives from different communities and unites students in social, economic, educational, environmental and legal justice. There is no other program like it in Canada. We have philosophers like Mitch Bourbenierre who is a mean-looking bearded biker who might walk into class with a vest on, but once you get to know him he is really just a gentle giant that loves everyone. Dr. Myra Laramee is the woman who sits in the centre of the four directions. Her wisdom, teaching methods and Indigenous ways of knowing class fundamentally changes the way post-secondary education classes are taught and received in the inner city. Not enough can be said about the department, professors, instructors, students, and the amount of love and energy that has gone into making the program successful. The UIC department will be moving to Merchants Corner in the next two years.
- The Merchants Corner was once a hotel and bar, one of the most notorious hotels in Winnipeg for drug dealing, sexual exploitation and a breeding ground of violence. The Merchants Hotel was a cancerous cell that spread through the distribution of alcohol, the consumption of it, and the aftermath of violence and anger released when people would go to parties or back into their homes. The negative energy people brought home from that bar would be released into the hearts, minds and spirits of the children and families through physical abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse. This negative energy would spread in cycles in the community through bad behaviour, and the reproduction of poverty and violence. The Merchants Corner Hotel and Bar is now being converted into an educational hub that will host the Urban and Inner City Studies Department, CEDA Pathways to Education and the U of M Inner City Social Work program. The University of Winnipeg Students Associations will also open its first ever satellite office in this space. It will boast a new housing complex for students that has thirty suites. Instead of people coming home drunk and full of negativity from Merchants Hotel, we will have brothers and sisters coming home with books, determination, and motivation to achieve success and happiness. This positive energy will multiply, growing stronger each day as people come in and out of the doors of the new Merchants Corner.
Many social activists and our children may find ourselves studying or working in the inner city and we must always remind ourselves of the mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers that have paved the path to educational opportunities in the inner city for us. It is because of them that these initiatives, programs and educational spaces exist and I believe that it is now our responsibility and will always be our inherent right to receive an education, build our institutions to respect our world views, paradigms and ways of being. Just as they have struggled to build a better future for their children and grandchildren in the inner city of Winnipeg through education, it is now our responsibility to do the same thing for our children and grandchildren. We now have a responsibility to care for each other, encourage one another to find our gifts through education and community, and to use them to instill hope in our people just like they did.