Monday, 3 October 2011
Air Canada and "The Indian Issue"
By now there are few people who haven't come across the Air Canada corporate memo drawing a red line around downtown Winnipeg. (The story is now going international).
I've lived and worked in, or adjacent to, the downtown for a couple of decades. I don't subscribe to the blanket belief (usually espoused by people who don't come downtown much) that the area is one huge crime zone. Like most areas of the city, it has its trouble spots but large sections of the downtown are unrecognizable compared to 25 years ago when most people picked up their unshakable perception of the area.
Over the years I have had the 'downtown debate' with a lot of people. The one where I defend "the crime ridden downtown" but, after a bit of discussion, it turns into someone really being "annoyed with all the Indians hanging around". It's just more polite to cloak it in the previous term.
Interestingly, that Air Canada memo mirrors that same downtown debate. "Recent environmental issues have forced approximately 1,000 displaced people from rural Manitoba to numerous hotels in the downtown area." That makes several downtown locations "susceptible to crimes". It concludes by saying "We will certainly revisit the downtown area once the present situation improves. Authorities anticipate displaced people to be an issue for another 12 months." The translation is sadly familiar: too many Indians downtown for our liking, when they get shipped back to Lake St. Martin we'll reconsider.
I'm not making light of the situation faced by employees. Seeing or being approached by someone who is drunk at a place where you are staying voluntarily can be annoying and in some cases alarming. Why not request a greener pasture like a suburban hotel (where crime - never - happens, or at least the people look more like you).
So, what to make of the memo ?
It does shed light on the fact that cleaning up our core goes beyond adding new buildings. From the time of the Civic Centre Complex to Portage Place to the MTS Centre, we (meaning our politicians) tend to roll the dice on big, sparkly mega projects to fix all ills that surround it. That approach has never worked.
Many people and media have used the memo as a reason to trot out "crime ridden downtown", which does a real disservice. Not only does it unfairly smear an entire area but it gives the sense that there is a simplistic solution. A crime problem ? Well, a few more police will be assigned, a few more BIZ patrols done and in a few months an official will hold up a piece of paper showing that "crime is down" and consider the job to be done.
The job won't be done, perceptions won't be changed and we'll do it all over again in a couple of years. Why ? Because "crime" is really not the main issue. Instead, it's a bad stew of touchy topics that we need to address.
How do we crack down on 'downmarket' hotels and their bars that cater to certain people while actively seeking out and supporting hotels and bars that cater to the 'right' people ? We've been closing and knocking down the former ones for decades in the hopes that the issues will disappear with them, but they don't.
How do we deal with the underlying addiction problem ? Past solutions have taken an out of sight - out of mind approach. More cops, a beefed up Biz Patrol with a drunk-tank shuttle to get people off to the Main Street Project more quickly. We've only scratched the surface in realizing that this is more of a public health crisis than a policing and crime one.
Then there's the overarching theme and the touchiest one of all: race. We live in a city with the largest urban Aboriginal population in the country. It's a demographic that will continue to grow over time. If today's downtown woes, cloaked as crime issues, often boil down to a racial one what is that going to mean for the city in the years ahead ?
We can read the memo and get worked up about downtown crime and repeat the same dance or we can start talking about some of the real issues that Air Canada has pointed out to us.