Organizing for Power in a Stolen City

Review of Owen Toews’ book Stolen City

Growing up in the northeastern suburbs of Winnipeg, a common occurrence for my family was driving over the Disraeli bridge. As soon as Main Street became visible, the doors of our rusted blue hatchback locked with an authoritative click. It was moments like this growing up that taught and reinforced spatial, political, and cultural separation. Words were rarely used by my parents to express what exactly these moments meant, and even more rare was an understanding of why this was an almost weekly occurrence in my life growing up. While I attended Chief Peguis Junior High, named after the Saulteaux Chief Peguis, we learned little of the history of Indigenous peoples on the prairies. Even Peguis himself was rendered a brief footnote in our social studies class: we were taught that he provided help to the settlers, preventing starvation, and part of his nose was bitten off in a fight. How Peguis and his people could provide such crucial aid to settlers was never discussed. Nor were Peguis’ protests over the theft of unceded lands ever mentioned. The existence of walls around history became self-evident with time, but the spatial borders in Winnipeg were omnipresent. The Red and Assiniboine rivers, more than simply geographic features of the city, are clear natural borders that separate neighbourhoods in Winnipeg.

On a summer day in the late ’90s hanging out with a friend in Elmwood, a working class suburb of Winnipeg, we decided to walk across the Redwood bridge to Main Street to rent a video game and pick up snacks for the afternoon. When I later told my parents what we did that day, they were scandalized. “You went to Main Street? You went to the North End?” I was confused. The walk had been a total of about 30 minutes there and back, but a cultural and racial border had been crossed. I was told it was “unsafe” to be there. What this danger was on an August day at 1pm was never articulated to me, only that it was a fact. While my friend and I continued to take this route (without incident), the experience stuck with me. What made the strip malls on the other side of the river more dangerous? I could tell the area was “poorer” but relative to what? My neighbourhood was “poorer” comparatively to other neighbourhoods in Winnipeg, but was it unsafe? Not even remotely. What was at the root of my parents’ reaction? How and why were these political, cultural and racial borders created and maintained?

Owen Toews’ book Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg details the how and why. Stolen City illuminates how settler colonialism has made and remade Winnipeg over the last 150 years. It is both a chronicle of the ruling alliances, or “dominant blocs,” that have installed their visions onto Winnipeg but also the rich local history of revolutionary traditions and counter visions to the dominant bloc in Winnipeg. Instead of separating histories of Canadian westward expansion and industrial capitalism, Owen Toews links them together as part of the larger history of conquest in Winnipeg and places these political and social dynamics into the urban present. Centering the book on Winnipeg is a welcomed change to much of the analysis on the Canadian Left, which tends to essentialize movements and organizations from Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver as catch-all models to be reproduced elsewhere with little attention to local conditions or history. Settler colonialism is an active, ongoing process across Canada and while Stolen City is concentrated on one city, the history and lessons that can be taken from it will help to sharpen the understanding of the process of settler colonialism for anyone reading it. The knowledge and history in Stolen City is something activists and organizers across Canada should endeavour to reproduce (not necessarily in print) about the space they inhabit.

Owen Toews is a white settler, born and raised in Winnipeg, descended from Russian Mennonites. Throughout Stolen City, he writes in the first person about his experience conducting interviews and doing research, starting with a meeting of a coalition of organizers in Winnipeg’s Indigenous North End. During the meeting, a newspaper is passed around with a small item on the front page announcing that white Christian missionaries were to be given free land and $6 million from the government to construct a large recreation centre for North End children. The matter would be voted on in six days at City Hall without any invitation to or consultation with the organizers who had been working for decades on grassroots programs for youth in the North End. The groups acted quickly, formed a coalition, and packed the city council chambers to resist state funding for missionaries.

Using this story as an entry point to Stolen City invokes long-standing Winnipeg political traditions: the struggle for Indigenous community control over education, youth programming, urban planning and the development of the city’s Main Street strip, the North End, and the broader inner city. The introduction is aptly entitled “Icebergs”: the unilateral and tone deaf decision to build the Youth for Christ building at Main and Higgins, and the subsequent erasure of decades of plans, dreams, and visions by Winnipeg’s Indigenous community, reveals the tip of what 150 years of settler colonialism and racial capitalism have done to remake and reshape Winnipeg.

Two of the most important concepts in Stolen City are racial capitalism and settler colonialism. The theoretical frame of racial capitalism emphasizes how capitalism, rather than homogenize, rationalize and demystify social relations, exaggerates regional and subcultural differences into racial ones. Toews writes, “racism naturalizes the socially manufactured attacks and inequalities that capitalism requires, making them seem proper, inevitable, and just” (18). Toews also insists that, “settler colonialism is a specific, but not unique, mode of racial capitalism that describes Canada’s relationships to Indigenous peoples” (20). For Toews, these frames help us understand the complexities of class as a racialized formation. As well, Toews’ analysis centers settler colonialism not as a given structure, but as a social relation. In this sense, the conceptual framework of Stolen City is important for activists because it reveals how these systems are both formed historically and how they work in the present. Settler colonialism is often framed by the mainstream as something that happened in the past, but Stolen City shows how it is a structural factor in Winnipeg today. We are indeed on stolen land, and Stolen City puts settler colonialism in the urban present of Winnipeg.

I am currently involved in political organizing in Winnipeg, and Stolen City is a key resource to understanding the contemporary political, cultural, and geographic landscape in which my comrades and myself are working. For the last two years I have been involved in tenants’ organizing in West Broadway with the fledgling West Broadway Tenants’ Committee and I’ve been working to organize the unorganized with the Manitoba Fight For 15 campaign. Stolen City has become a touchstone for many of us in both groups.

For tenants’ organizing, Stolen City provides a framework to understand why there is such great unmet human need in Winnipeg’s inner city. The current state of inner-city Winnipeg has been discussed routinely—specifically the deep and entrenched poverty—but how developer boondoggles have robbed inner-city communities of desperately needed housing, education, and child care is rarely brought into the conversation. Stolen City documents the sustained activism by inner city neighbourhoods from the 1960s into the late 1990s and beyond. In this history, inner city communities clearly articulated counter-visions to developer visions of capital accumulation and the condescending pathology of bootstrapping (131, 142, 145-46, 158). Starting in the 1970s, Indigenous groups in Winnipeg created several plans to address police brutality and unequal land distribution, and called for a restructuring of the treaties: “This was a powerful call for a new deal—with redistribution of land at its core—between Indigenous peoples and Canada based on modern social, economic and geographical realities, rather than those of the late 1800s” (142). These plans stand in stark contrast to how downtown and inner-city Winnipeg are pathologized today as being dysfunctional and instead highlight these areas as vibrant communities with rich social and political lives.

The connection between settler colonialism and gentrification is clearly made throughout Stolen City. Gentrification relies heavily on the common tropes of settler colonialism, of land being “empty” and devoid of life, while also violently displacing Indigenous communities. In the context of Winnipeg, one only has to look at the developer and urban booster propaganda that frames whole swaths of the Winnipeg’s downtown and inner city as both “empty,” at least empty of upwardly mobile settlers, and dangerous and in need of “law and order.” The erasure and vilification of existing downtown and inner-city residents runs across political lines in Winnipeg and is as prominent in so-called progressive urbanist circles, despite their “woke” exterior. The Youth For Christ building referenced above was justified as being built on land that was both “empty” and “unsafe.” Portage Place mall in downtown Winnipeg, a failed revitalization project, is commonly said to be “empty” and usually garners the scorn of liberal-minded urbanists. It might rightly be considered a failure for not attracting rich suburban shoppers to the downtown core, but it is far from empty. In fact, it is probably one of the busiest places in downtown Winnipeg, especially on weekends. Toews notes,

mall-goers easily mount what dominant bloc-aligned urbanists might recognize as the ‘sidewalk ballet’ if they cared to look. Kids in snowsuits sprint down the ramps through the gardens; mothers chat and rock babies in strollers; elders and people in wheelchairs sip coffees, waiting for Handi-Transit to pick them up. (275)

Both the residents of downtown and inner city and their plans and visions for Winnipeg are erased.

For our struggles with the Fight For 15 campaign, Stolen City illustrates why there is such a gulf between working-class white and Indigenous people in Winnipeg, and how various governments (most notably the NDP who governed Manitoba from 1999 to 2016) fanned the flames of long-standing racism as a way to cover their capitulation to capital and neoliberalism. What Stolen City has helped me realize is how our issues with the Fight For 15 are connected to struggles over urban planning, infrastructure, policing, and urban “redevelopment.”

One of the contemporary focal points in developer visions of downtown Winnipeg is the Winnipeg Jets NHL franchise and the Bell MTS Centre, co-owned by media magnate David Thompson, the richest man in Canada (256-60). While both are framed as being the economic saviours of downtown Winnipeg, employees at Bell MTS Centre only make minimum wage ($11.35 an hour) and are not unionized. Importantly, however, Toews’ analysis centers the original dispossession of Indigenous peoples that enabled the devaluing of the downtown core to benefit developers. This was done through the demolition of downtown hotels that housed Indigenous peoples coming from reserves to access medical care in the city (223). The developer vision in Winnipeg scapegoats Indigenous peoples as the root of “safety” problems in downtown Winnipeg, only to displace these residents in order to make way for new buildings with low wage, non-union service sector jobs. Again and again, racial capitalism scapegoats Indigenous people and dispossess them in order to exploit a divided working class on stolen land.

Near the end of Stolen City, Toews writes that if Winnipeg is to learn something from the last 20 years of federal, provincial, and civic government, it is that we should be focusing less on the “tempting shortcut of taking power—electing enlightening politicians who we all know will bend, more often than not, to the considerable power of dominant blocs—and focusing more on making power” (313). Toews is purposefully not prescriptive in what exactly we should do, but the legacy and actions of Winnipeg’s Indigenous community is certainly a place to start in building common analysis, alliance, and solidarity. Stolen City gives a cogent and clear analysis of the recent history of Winnipeg that can so easily be lost and obscured. Stolen City also provides some key insights into the recent history of the NDP, specifically their wholehearted support for prison and police expansion from 1999 to 2016, that is crucial to understanding the NDP today. Making power, as Toews advocates for, provides no shortcuts for us but, given Winnipeg’s relative isolation, we do not have much of a choice either. On a broader level Stolen City is an important contribution to understanding how settler colonialism and capitalism form and change over time and how they help us understand the ways in which certain class interests benefit from settler-colonial projects. *