Monday, November 6, 2017

JCUF VOL 4 NO 1 (2017) - Downtown Winnipeg and Urban Culture Across Canada

The term urban is one that takes on many forms, like many monikers, based on when it's being used and why. It's been both an issue of controversy and celebration at times in the Kya Publishing context, as our use of it is fluid.

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.

Terms like urban planning, urban renewal, and urbanization can be applied to basically any city and its development--that is commonplace. While we as writers claim "urban culture" as a central tenet of our existence, we realize that the majority of Canadians searching for urban anything, are probably searching on a city tip...and less likely on a cultural tip.

Statistics Canada used the term "urban area" to describe towns that had a population of at least 1000, and a population density of no fewer than 400 per square kilometre. More than familiar with the urban landscape of Toronto, both physically and culturally, we thought it best to expand our urban horizons to a densely populated city that wasn't within the borders of Ontario.

Admittedly Ontario-centric, as Toronto-based writers we tend to equate our experiences (urban and otherwise) as the Canadian norm. While Toronto is easily the biggest urban area in our country, we would be remiss not to mention the cities of Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton that round out the top 5, population-wise.

Down the list, at number 7 is Winnipeg with a population of approximately 700,000. Much less than Toronto's 5.4 million, but yet still greater than the majority of Canada's other urban centres like Hamilton, Halifax, Saskatoon, and St. Johns. For the sake of our research and cultural expansion, we decided that Winnipeg would be the next space to explore on our journey to fully understand the urban Canadian experience.

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.

Our hotel was centrally located, right on Portage in the heart of downtown. Adjacent to the University of Winnipeg, and unbeknownst to us, also in the middle of the most feared part of town. Security personnel, police sirens, and an active street culture greeted us on our first night downtown. It wasn't the tourist-laden Yonge Street we were used to in Toronto, with active storefronts and crowded sidewalks. This was different.

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.

Maneuvering the bookstores and universities, looking at the courses, and sections, the themes, content, and pervasive cultures brought us to the same conclusion repeatedly: to know urban Winnipeg is to intimately know its Aboriginal culture. Both universities, and also the McNally Robinson bookstore (Canada's largest independent bookstore) had awesome resources dedicated to this culture, as did the Winnipeg Public Library.

In Toronto, we would search for "Black writers" or "urban culture"...but in Winnipeg, this wasn't the case. It wasn't even close. And while we know that "Black" and "urban" are not always interchangeable, coming with our Caribbean- and African-Canadian lens, we were reminded that the definition of urban is not constant at all. It had already taken on an entirely new meaning.

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.

As Canadian-born writers of Jamaican descent, in Black skin, and urban cultural spirit, Kya Publishing writers Kamilah Haywood and Stacey Marie Robinson approached this site visit with the optimism and openness for knowledgeable exploration. Having been educated by a Canadian school system 100%, and Canadian citizens to the was a reminder that outside of  Toronto's strong cultural influence, were major cities with entirely different realities.

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 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.

The intention was to seek out urban writers, urban culture, writers of colour, and a unique cultural experience outside of Toronto that would reinforce our commitment to representing Canada in our writing and actions. Instead, the journey went straight to the core of our consciousness as we had to reevaluate what we believed our place to be in Canadian society, what we perceived the place of the Aboriginals to be, and how we could reconcile the similarities, the differences...and what this would mean for the way we created and communicated literature.

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.

And at the shores of the historical Forks, sat a majestic new museum, with a focus on Human Rights. With floor after beautiful floor dedicated to the suffering of women, various ethnicities, and stories of perseverance and rebellion. The Canadian Museum of Human Rights, just a few kilometers from Winnipeg's notorious "North End" packaged the city of Winnipeg in the most perplexing way.

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.

What did the city of Winnipeg do for Kya Publishing's vision of urban culture across Canada, and the influence on the writers? It just reminded us of how location and experience is so extremely intimate. How the writers and communicators of each area are strongly influenced by the immediate social concerns and historical influences of their communities.

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.

The urban culture of Winnipeg, is Winnipeg-centric. Looking out from the top floor observatory of the Museum of Human Rights, we couldn't see anything but land, regardless of what side of the 360 degree view we took in. It was a city in the middle of the plains, in the middle of our country, that was still feeling the sensitivities and historical impact of their divisions. Out loud. Still trying to reconcile between the strong and spiritual First Nations presence, and the rejuvenating urban presence of the residents.

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.

Just as we explored Winnipeg, we look forward to exploring other areas of our country, and the intricacies of their makeup. Until then, we can hardly claim to represent "urban Canada" because even using the divisive word "urban" itself still doesn't compare to how dramatically different the urban experience is from one town to another. We will specify our Toronto-ness. Our Black-ness. Our Caribbean-ness, and all other signifiers that make the urban Toronto experience what it is, in the majority of cases.

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.

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