January 23, 2015

The Watershed Moment

My city is bruised, declared Canada's most racist by Maclean's this week in response to a spiraling series of events that has now, more than ever, pit residents against the city's burgeoning indigenous population. And I have spent the past hour scouring the house for the evidence that I helped perpetuate this label – a diary post from 1987 I wrote after an incident when I was eleven years old. I couldn't find it, but I can paraphrase. It's not hard. It sticks with me to this day.

It was in the winter, or early spring; I remember that. I was a paperboy for the Winnipeg Free Press, pulling my load of newspapers on a sled from my house to the start of my two routes on Walnut Street. Across from Sam's Payfair at Chestnut and Westminster I was tracked down by a pack of "Native kids", as I posted in my diary that night – some older than me, some younger. I was aware of them coming, but I knew enough to plod on and try to ignore what I sensed was inevitable. One kicked the back of my sled, and it knocked the backs of my boots. I kept pulling. Another kicked the papers onto the snow. There was laughing. I stopped and went to gather the papers. I knelt down, was pushed over my sled. I know I said something then – it was more than likely, fuck you. I was kicked in the face, and I lay on the frozen sidewalk. I wasn't knocked out, but I figured if I stayed in this position they'd likely consider the whole thing over with. I was right.

Laying there for a moment, I looked up at the trees. This was in the dying days of afternoon delivery, and it was dark already. A woman crossed the street to check if I was alright; I told her yes. My lip was swelling. I got up, found the rope for my sled and headed for Walnut Street. A short time later, a police cruiser stopped alongside me and an officer asked me to hop in. It was really cold. That woman must have called the cops. There wasn't much to tell, tears welling in my eyes; I remember one of them trying to cheer me up by making a crack about my lip. I told them I needed to finish my route, that I was OK. They would watch out for these kids. Nothing became of it.

I was into my second route, on Purcell Avenue near Maryland, when I crossed an alleyway and came face-to-face with a kid walking alone, about seven or eight years old. My eyes went wide; he was one of them, from earlier. I can remember us both stopping in our tracks, staring at each other – I wanted to cold-cock him something awful. He was scared. I pushed him. I yelled. Get the fuck out of here. He did, and he ran.

That night I wrote in my diary. I seethed about those Natives, using a laundry list of expletives. I was eleven years old. I wrote, those Natives have ruined things for themselves. They only have themselves to blame. My writing was like buckshot, aimed at the sky. I now wonder if I tossed this diary. I know I didn't finish it, that the entries petered out after a few months when I was on the verge of beginning junior high.

I grew up.

The sentiment passed. I had the benefit of living in a diverse neighbourhood, gaining friends of all stripes, learning in schools downtown rich with culture. As a teenager I took a job at a drugstore, delivering prescriptions in one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. All of this gave me empathy, and there are thousands of people in this city who could stand for some themselves. I am not the biggest optimist, and I do not think the Maclean's article has positioned my city at the watershed moment it is seeking. It has stirred a necessary reaction. It is top of mind.

Very few people change, but generations do. Slowly, and I feel it will happen here. We will grow up.

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