Gathering seeks to expose settler colonialism and neoliberalism in Winnipeg

By Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land

Winnipeg is home to a long history of struggles over urban space. These struggles often seem to have two dimensions: on the one hand, low-income communities fight against the effects of an unjust political-economic system, and on the other hand Indigenous peoples continue to struggle against settler colonialism*. How are these struggles connected?

This was one of the motivating questions for a group of about eighty people who gathered on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at Winnipeg’s Social Enterprise Center for a series of workshops titled Whose Winnipeg? Neoliberalism, Settler Colonialism, and the Production of Urban Space. In the call for proposals, participants were asked by organizers to consider what the intersection of neoliberalism and settler colonialism looks like in Winnipeg. How do these international processes work together to shape urban life? And how can we better understand these processes in order to resist them?

The genesis of this workshop was a panel put together by PhD students Owen Toews and David Hugill for the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meetings in Los Angeles in April, 2013. The Winnipeg iteration of Whose Winnipeg? arose out of conversations among the five Winnipeggers that presented at the AAG meeting. The organizers of the Winnipeg event, Kate Sjoberg, Owen Toews, and Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land circulated a revised call to networks of activists, advocates, writers, journalists, artists, students, and academics in Winnipeg. The response was overwhelming, and in just three weeks twenty-one presentations with thirty presenters had been organized.

Presentations ranged in tone from academic-research in progress to personal reflection on community and activist work. A complete list of presentations with short descriptions, and the original call for proposals can be found on the workshop’s website:

Participants explored questions of how neoliberalism and settler colonialism both shape and are shaped by our responses to them. For example, how has the neoliberal pressure to privatize and decentralize service provision shaped the sector of community-based organizations that many participants work within? How, in turn, can these CBOs serve as sites of resistance to those forces? The Social Enterprise Center was a fitting venue for this kind of reflection. It is home to a cluster of social enterprises including BUILD, Pollock’s Hardware Co-op, and Manitoba Green Retrofit. Social Enterprises have emerged as a response to both the lack of job training, and the lack of available good jobs for people who face multiple barriers to employment.

BUILD, for example, employs and trains many Indigenous men who have spent time incarcerated. Like many community-based organizations, it is an initiative designed to respond to the particular needs of the small group of people it serves. It is a small-scale response to large-scale processes like neoliberal economic restructuring, which has led to increasingly limited and precarious work opportunities. These conditions interact with the racism of the criminal justice system, and a racially segregated labor market to produce the problems BUILD responds to.

One of the discussions that emerged in the Whose Winnipeg? workshop was about the challenges of connecting issues of a local scale with deeper structures of oppression and inequality. How do we respond to the immediate and local needs of marginalized people and communities, while also thinking at the scale of the systems that produce this marginalization? This theme was also present in discussions about the relationship between education and training directed at individuals as a way out of poverty, and efforts to combat poverty more broadly.

One of the challenges of the workshop was to find a common language that could connect the analysis of those working in community or activist work, and those working in the academy. Activism and academia don’t exist in practice as dichotomies – most people act and reflect in the same set of moments, and many workshop participants wear both activist and academic hats in their lives. Still, at times during the workshop it wasn’t clear whether the point of the discussion was to figure out how these presentations could directly inform our activist work, or whether it was to engage on a more theoretical level with the problems and conflicts posed by the presentations. Is it possible to bring those two goals together? What would that look like? How do we make these conversations both focused enough to be productive, and broadly inclusive? Who was part of this conversation, who wasn’t, and why? What does it mean for a predominantly white crowd to host conversations about settler colonialism and settler solidarity? Were Indigenous voices foregrounded? How, why or why not, and to what effect? These are ongoing challenges and the organizers hope that reflections on this event will inform future attempts at these kinds of conversations.

The evening ended with WEprotESTern a performance art piece by Coral Maloney and Ian Mozdzen. For many, this work embodied some of the confusion and tension that arose from the event. As art often does, it gave us permission to sit more comfortably with that confusion. WEprotESTern was a captivating, heart-wrenching and challenging piece that explored the fetishism of cowboy culture and the sometimes- nationalism of LGBT communities in Canada by highlighting the violence and homophobia that undergirds those cultural statements.

As any stimulating meeting will do, Whose Winnipeg? raised more questions than it answered. Winnipeg will benefit from ongoing attempts to have these conversations, in whatever forms they take.

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is a PhD Student in the Department of Sociology, City University of New York Graduate Center. She grew up in Winnipeg.

*Settler Colonialism Countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, are described as settler colonial and differentiated from franchise colonies in “postcolonial” or “third world” countries. While there are many parallels between franchise and settler colonialism, under the latter, settlers tend to form the majority of a territory’s population and to have significant political independence from the imperial home country. Indigenous peoples, and their claims to land and sovereignty, pose a serious threat to the settler colonial order and are therefore persistent targets of management and control. In Canada, prominent tactics and expressions of settler colonialism have included military conquest, the Indian Reserve system, Indian Residential Schools, the 1969 White Paper, the Sixties Scoop, various forms of racialized policing, mass incarceration, Federal Bill C-45, and terrifying rates of sexual violence against Indigenous women.