The dictionary definition also goes in two directions. From the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we have 1) of, living in, or situated in a town or city, and 2) designating music, or radio stations playing it, performed by Black artists, especially R&B, hop hop, reggae, etc.
On the agenda: the Winnipeg Public Library, the University of Winnipeg, the University of Manitoba, various bookstores, and a general exploration of the city, the culture, tourist attractions, common areas, and the essence of urban (downtown) Winnipeg.
The home of the Canadian Journal of Urban Research (founded in 1992), the University of Winnipeg is dedicated to the study of urban Aboriginal people, related social issues, and urban issues like homelessness intervention, and downtown planning. With a focus on issues of housing and income inequality, the Journal has a legacy of training policy makers and contributing to the revitalization of Winnipeg's urban areas. One of the the few independent scholarly journals in Canada with a focus on urban culture, the Canadian Journal of Urban Research and the makeup of Winnipeg quickly let us know that Toronto's "urban" and Winnipeg's "urban" could easily mean different things.
While Toronto, like most densely populated cities, will have to address issues of housing, homelessness, and other social concerns that were brought to our attention in Winnipeg, we realized that the urban "style" and urban "culture" that we were used to representing would take on a different form in this prairie province of Manitoba.
Yes, there is an undergound hip hop scene in Winnipeg, with hip hop artists and a tangible "street" arts culture...but the underlying commonality in Winnipeg was not so much the "urban culture" as it was the First Nations culture. It was a culture that was underexposed in Toronto, yet everything in Winnipeg. A culture that was so fundamentally Canadian, yet still so foreign to us. Almost embarrassingly so.
Winnipeg is unique in that 11% of the population is of First Nations descent, which is vastly higher than the national average of 4.3%. Winnipeg also had the highest percentage of Aboriginal residents for any major Canadian city of over 100,000 people. The highest percentage of Aboriginal residents living off of the reserve. These facts created a new framework for us to view Winnipeg with.
Yes, Winnipeg and Manitoba celebrate Black History Month, as the entire country does officially since the Government declaration in 1995. Winnipeg hosts many cultural organizations, and a few annual Afric-centered events and gatherings. While the Black community is small, casual conversation and a surface surveillance led to the conclusion that the "Black" impact as a culture wasn't as pervasive as that of the First Nations community. And rightfully so.
It brought back the details of a 2015 article from MacLeans Magazine that declared Winnipeg was the most racist city in Canada. Recalling numerous Facebook debates, and online discussion where many African-Canadians objected to this declaration in defense of their own discrimination...it was interesting to note the racial climate in Winnipeg. As mentioned in the article, the city was "deeply divided, ethnically" and also there was obvious (and disturbing!) "sub-human treatment" of the Aboriginal community.
Living in Canada with Black skin, Caribbean heritage, and an "urban" soul...both authors expected to feel their race while navigating the city. Surprisingly, the race they felt the most was that of the First Nations people...and the discrimination was overt, and disgusting.
Derogatory comments. Open glares. Dismissive attitudes. Racially charged statements. For a weekend visit anywhere, to openly witness this type of behaviour was shocking. While experiencing racism as an individual of colour is "nothing new"...this level of overt shunning was appalling.
Obviously, discrimination exists. Of course, the First Nations communities of Canada have had a less than acceptable history of treatment and equality in our country. These are facts we have always known. However, to FEEL racism against someone else in a way you have never even experienced yourself hit home in an unexpected way.
The MacLeans article noted that Winnipeg yielded the highest proportions of racist Tweets and online commentary. It mentioned the visible division of the city by the CP rail yard, which led us to explore the city's notorious North End. The part of town that many locals have never seen with their own eyes, or driven the streets of. The part of town where police cars, and trouble roam the streets after dark. Where the commotion is. Where the violence is. Where the name "Murderpeg" originated, due to the fact that this area contains 2 of the 3 poorest postal codes in Canada, and the highest rate of violent crimes as well.
No shops or enterprise. Prostitution. High rates of suicide. Solvent abuse. Alcoholism. It was called a "bruised generation" of citizens, only two generations removed from the residential schools of the past. A damaged ego. Lack of trust. These were concepts we were familiar with, with a landscape and face we rarely witnessed in Toronto.
It was a city of beauty, flat lands, cooler temperatures, and a simple skyline. A city of friendly folks, with deep, deep resentments and anger towards their most influential citizens. A city that barely made the top ten list of Canadian populations, but easily had an impactful history and future.
It wouldn't be easy to draw parallels between our urban writing, and say, the research of the Urban Studies department at the University of Winnipeg. We were writing about urban culture as a style, and as a culturally-specific set of rules, language, behaviours, and expectations. Our urban culture was definitily urban, both in locale and in spirit...but it wasn't comparable to the urban culture of a city like Winnipeg.
Chances are, visits to Halifax, and Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Vancouver would also reveal significantly different urban experiences.
Our working definition of urban, based on how we perceive our Toronto experience to be as Black citizens, and individuals who have grown up in and around the city have a strong Caribbean influence. Musical influence. Behavioural influence, and societal appreciation for African-American culture as well. Our urban looks and feels like a combination of the various influences that we are used to absorbing as Torontonians with access to so many other powerful cultures each day.
In just a few days, we found ourselves deeply touched by the experience, in awe at our ignorance to some of the most commonplace realities of Winnipeg life, and inevitably flying back to Toronto with a new appreciation for our abundantly diverse urban culture...yet with a sadness for the citizens of the North End, and the verbal and cultural abuse they experienced daily.
We will not forget what we saw, and what we felt in Winnipeg, and we will remember that when we write from a Canadian perspective, that it is much, much deeper than we could have ever imagined. We will strive to make the writing and communicating of these experiences a standard...regardless of the location in this country, that we still deem to be the best in the world.
Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction.