Indigenous Mayor Brian Bowman Delivers Lecture on Reconciliation

Amani Rauff (2L)

The David B. Goodman Lecture brings a distinguished lawyer or judge to the school annually for a few days of teaching and discussions. This year’s lecture was given by Brian Bowman, the mayor of Winnipeg and the first Indigenous mayor of a major Canadian city.

A U of T Law alumnus and former SLS president, Mayor Bowman practiced for fourteen years at two leading Winnipeg firms in the areas of privacy, access to information, and social media. During this time, he stayed away from politics and worked with not-for-profit organizations, wary of the hyper-partisanship and negativity he saw at City Hall. Eventually, he threw his hat in the ring, thinking “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I put my name on the ballot?” The answer, as he found out: “I could win.”

Mayor Bowman’s talk was titled Appropriate Responses to the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Mayor has unique experience in this area, having dealt very early on in his term with a Maclean’s magazine cover article branding Winnipeg the city “where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst.” The article documented the stories of Aboriginal women who were harassed and murdered, opinion polls that showed a higher level of disdain towards Aboriginal peoples than anywhere else in the country, and discrimination—sometimes fatal—in policing, housing, and healthcare services.

Mayor Bowman says that he remembers the day that article came out “incredibly vividly,” and that “on that day, we had to choose between dismissing that characterization or acknowledging the racism that exists in our community.” He recalls being advised to simply attack Macleans or the author of the piece, to find a distraction, or just ignore it altogether. Instead, he said, “we confronted the problem head on.”

Bowman told the audience that he declared 2016 to be Winnipeg’s “Year of Reconciliation,” and that he saw it as a “real new beginning for the city of Winnipeg.” He spoke about the importance of acknowledging that a meeting or event is taking place on treaty land, and the importance of dealing with those treaties as more than just historical documents. He emphasized that the treaties were meant to be “the opening chapter of an ongoing story of peace and partnership” that was interrupted. He believes that racism was fundamental to this interruption and its troubling consequences, including, but not limited to, residential schools. Reconciliation, said the Mayor, “means recovering the Canadian story of peace and partnership that the treaties began to tell, and that we lost track of somehow.”

Mayor Bowman’s talk, while interesting, did not address concrete fixes to the problems brought up by the Maclean’s article as much as might have been desired. Thus, during the question period, the Mayor was asked for examples of the programs that Winnipeg has been implementing in the pursuit of reconciliation. Bowman cited the following:

  • Mandatory training for roughly ten-thousand employees, including police officers, on reconciliation;
  • Partnering with not-for-profit foundations on the “Winnipeg promise” to get every child in the community who is entitled to the Canada Learning Bond signed up for it;
  • Embracing a housing-first approach to homelessness, aiming to end homelessness in the next nine years;
  • Funding a community homelessness assistance team, and stepping up funding for a substantial number of social workers; and
  • Visiting every high school in Winnipeg for discussions on diversity, reconciliation, and civic engagement.

Mayor Bowman ended his talk with a challenge to everyone in the room to find and recover “your piece of that story [of peace and partnership] . . . and share it with your community, and share it with the world.”