In 1989, Wayne Helgason, a respected leader in Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community, was looking for better quarters for Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, an Aboriginal child welfare agency he headed. It occurred to him that the Canadian Pacific Railway station, a magnificent old building that was abandoned and run down, could be redeveloped to serve his agency’s needs, while at the same time serving as a focal point for Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community. It was not a new idea. For a couple of decades the concept of an umbrella organization for a variety of Aboriginal business development, educational and social service activities had been circulating in the Aboriginal community.

Helgason, who later became executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, put his formidable networking skills to work. Undeterred by his failure to gain cooperation from the mainstream Aboriginal organizations — the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Métis Federation — he mobilized enough leaders looking for space for their organizations and got enough government assistance to save the old building, get it renovated and turn it into the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg Inc., which now houses the Neeginan Institute of Applied Technology (the name is Cree for “our place”), the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation, the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg — which represents the interests of urban Aboriginal people — the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre, an Aboriginal community campus for human resource development, a daycare centre, an art gallery, a restaurant, a computer lab, a printing company and a single-window office for access to Aboriginal programs offered by the three levels of government. Leveraging its equity, it has bought adjacent properties to provide space for another daycare centre and a training facility for welders.

The organization of the Aboriginal Centre demonstrates the potential of such political initiatives, while partaking of their untidiness. Critics argue that it is excessively dependent on government funding. It is caught up in ongoing disputes and subject to the backbiting that is an inevitable by-product of a controversial political initiative. Nevertheless, embodying the rich irony that it took an Aboriginal political initiative to save a quintessentially Anglo landmark from destruction and bring new life to a derelict downtown district, it demonstrates that, through cooperation and political finesse, a community can create an institution that takes on a life of its own and serves as a potentially significant social and economic asset.

Winnipeg is the urban Aboriginal capital of Canada. That is one of those rare statements that can be madewithout any qualification at all. With persons identifying themselves as Aboriginal constituting almost 10 percent of the population and numbering almost 68,000, Winnipeg has the largest number of urban Aboriginal people in the country, both relatively and absolutely (table 1). Population projections predict Aboriginal people will constitute one in four of those eligible for the workforce in 2020.

Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community is a study in contrasts. Aboriginal people are well represented in the community by such leaders as Wayne Helgason; Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg; Eric Robinson, provincial minister of Aboriginal and northern affairs; and Dan Vandal, a long-serving, influential member of Winnipeg City Council.

At the same time, Aboriginal Winnipeggers face some of the city’s most serious social problems. Relatively low education and employment rates contribute to inadequate housing, poor social conditions and poverty. In 2000, Aboriginal people in the Winnipeg census metropolitan area were nearly three times as likely to be classified as low-income as the general population. While 16.2 percent of Winnipeg residents were low-income, down from 17.5 percent two decades earlier, the more than 8 percent of the population who identified themselves as Aboriginal had a poverty rate of 46.2 percent. Aboriginal people constituted 23.8 percent of Winnipeg’s lowincome population.

Between 1980 and 2000, incomes in the 10 percent of Winnipeg’s neighbourhoods with the lowest income fell by 4.5 percent, while those in the 10 percent of the city’s neighbourhoods with the highest income rose 16.8 percent. In 8.5 percent of neighbourhoods more than 40 percent were low-income in 2000, virtually unchanged from 1980. Aboriginal people were highly concentrated in these low-income neighbourhoods.

In 2000, Aboriginal people in the Winnipeg Census Metropolitan Area were nearly three times as likely to be classified as lowincome as the general population. While 16.2 percent of
Winnipeg residents were low-income, down from 17.5 percent two decades earlier, the more than 8 percent of the population who identified themselves as Aboriginal had a poverty rate of 46.2 percent. Aboriginal people constituted 23.8 percent of Winnipeg’s low-income population.

Altogether, 21.2 percent of Aboriginal people in Winnipeg lived in lowincome neighbourhoods, compared with only 5.7 percent of the general population, according to 2005 Statistics Canada figures.

In order to understand the federal government role in Aboriginal policy in Winnipeg, we must consider two programs: the Winnipeg Partnership Agreement (WPA) and the Urban Aboriginal Strategy (UAS). The WPA is a trilevel agreement that took effect in 2004 and ended in 2009. It is the most recent of a series of such agreements, beginning in 1981 with the Core Area Initiative, which aimed to promote the physical, economic and social renewal of Winnipeg’s struggling inner city. Only one of its four components, Aboriginal participation, is relevant for our purposes.

The agreement promises that Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community “will play a lead role in the development and implementation…and in ensuring it provides full and transparent access to all parts of the community” in order to “ensure Winnipeg will benefit from the opportunities presented by significant growth in the young Aboriginal population.” The Aboriginal component includes three elements: economic development; training, education and employment; and health, wellness, quality of life and social development. Each level of government was obligated to contribute $25 million to the WPA over the period covered by the agreement.

The UAS was funded in 2003; it was a $25-million program that was to last three years. The purpose was to undertake pilot projects in eight cities, of which Winnipeg was one, with the ultimate objective of finding ways to narrow the “gap in life chances” between urban Aboriginal people and the rest of the population. In 2004, the funding was doubled, four cities were added, and the program was extended for a year, to end in March 2007. In 2007, the Harper government added $68.5 million over five years to respond to the needs of

Aboriginal people in urban centres. The initial infusion of funds was intended — according to the UAS web site and a consultants’ evaluation — to underwrite the testing of innovative policy ideas. During this period, a number of objectives were to be achieved. The first was to build — the wording used in the evaluation report is instructive — “organizational capacity within urban Aboriginal organizations…to enhance community leadership.” At the same time, efforts would be made to develop partnerships and coordinate resources, both across government departments and within the local communities.

At first blush, these programs look very positive: $75 million in WPA funds from three levels of government distributed across four major program components and four or five years (the agreement stipulated that Canada had to have completed its program approvals by March 31, 2008, while Manitoba and Winnipeg had until September 30, 2009); $50 million from the UAS was to be shared by 12 cities over four years; encouragement of innovative policy ideas to address deep-seated and persistent issues. However, there are problems.

The first is the idea of using a federal government program to build “organizational capacity [and]…enhance community leadership.” These conceptions mirror what Martine August and I found in another study, in which we evaluated the federal government’s Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative, a component of the National Homelessness Initiative. There, too, the federal government set itself the objective of responding to voices from the community and chose to do so by organizing a series of community forums where, according to one community leader, community members and service providers were not listened to, or asked for advice, but “lectured to” on the “academic definitions of homelessness.” In that instance, community leaders finally rebelled, organized their own meetings and produced a very credible set of recommendations — recommendations the federal government did not follow because they did not jive with federal priorities.

Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community, like the city’s community of service providers to homeless people, does not require the assistance of federal public servants to build leadership skills. As noted at the beginning of this article, the community has strong leaders within provincial or local organizations involved in Aboriginal governance, as well as in other local organizations. Among the Aboriginal organizations at the provincial level are the Aboriginal Council of Manitoba, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Manitoba Métis Federation and Mothers of Red Nations. Three provincial organizations have municipal branches in Winnipeg, the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, the Manitoba Métis Federation (Winnipeg Region) and Mothers of Red Nations (Winnipeg Region).

There are very real conflicts of interest among these groups — conflicts, it is fair to add, that are at least in part a product of distinctions that originate in federal legislation and are exacerbated by the administration of those laws. But organizational divisions, however artificial to begin with, become real as they are loaded with economic and political interests. The challenge of achieving a unified urban Aboriginal voice is not one of building leadership capacity, but one of finding ways to bridge these very real differences. It is conceivable that the federal government could provide incentives that might help motivate leaders and their followers to seek accommodations, but lessons in leadership are not what is needed.

In light of those reflections, it is not surprising to note that one of the conclusions of the consultants who evaluated the program was that “some Aboriginal political organizations take exception to the UAS model because it does not devolve control of the strategy and the funds to what they see as representative Aboriginal organizations.”

The second problem is the funding for the WPA and the UAS. Apparently, the actual
funds available are a great deal less than they appear. Two Aboriginal leaders interviewed for this study complained about the Aboriginal component of the WPA being a “shell game” or “not new money,” in that the WPA funds in question actually consisted of UAS funding that was previously allocated. Two public servants involved in the administration of the program — one with the federal government and one with the province — confirmed this, and a municipal official did not deny it when asked. For obvious reasons, they remain anonymous.

The federal official said the UAS and WPA funds were “largely synonymous,” and the provincial administrator volunteered, without being asked, that UAS funds had been “reprofiled” for inclusion in WPA — a usage that looks like a good candidate for inclusion in the notes on Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984. The same is true of $1.4 million in Winnipeg’s UAS funds, which was to go toward the city’s share of WPA funding.

Moreover, a comparison of the project profiles posted at the UAS and WPA web sites revealed there were 18 cases in which the same projects were posted on both sites, and 11 of these received exactly the same amount of funding. To be sure, if a matching formula were in place, the UAS and WPA funding might be identical, and not simply a duplication. However, interviews with Aboriginal leaders indicated otherwise. Officials of two organizations that the WPA and UAS claimed to have funded identically stated independently that their organizations did not receive the funding twice.

A third problem is the way the funds are disbursed. The procedure is that organizations apply for the funding, usually in relatively modest amounts, as organizational budgeting goes. For example, there was $61,420 for Mothers of Red Nations to pay a community development worker; $68,415 for an initiative for Aboriginal youth to develop leadership skills; $73,528, to provide work placements for Aboriginal teacher assistants; $15,000 for the Wii Chii Waa Ka Nak Indigenous Education Centre; and so on.

It seems reasonable to view this funding strategy in relation to the interorganizational rivalries within the Aboriginal community, referred to earlier. Instead of providing an incentive for competing Aboriginal organizations to bridge their differences, the federal government’s method of funding sets them competing with each other to wage paper wars in pursuit of relatively small amounts of funding, the need for which, in most cases, is probably keenly felt. If it were intended as a strategy to exacerbate divisions within the Aboriginal community, while providing an incentive for them to deal politely with government officials, it could hardly have been better designed.

To be sure, interviews with Aboriginal leaders made it clear that the cleavages within the community are deep, bitter and tenacious, and that there were instances of Aboriginal leaders themselves thwarting government attempts to induce interorganizational cooperation. However, Aboriginal leaders also took for granted that the government always had an “agenda,” and that organizations seeking funding had to find ways to make their plans fit with funding conditions. There was no suggestion at all that the government might be persuaded to take advice from Aboriginal leaders regarding program priorities, even though the quality and depth of Aboriginal leadership in Winnipeg strongly suggests that much good advice could be obtained.

Aboriginal leaders also reported that their attempts to bend their organizations’ priorities to fit funding criteria were dogged by shifting priorities and ever-changing organizational arrangements within the government. Respondents cited instances in which projects appeared to have been given the go-ahead, only later to be called off. Because of staffing changes in the administration of the UAS, one official’s positive response might be vetoed by his or her successor. As a result, time and money invested in a project would be lost and more time and money expended on reorientation, or a new beginning.

The federal government has been very much involved in the affairs of Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community, through the Urban Aboriginal Strategy and the Winnipeg Partnership Agreement, a colourful mixture of good and bad policy. Some features of this mixture are a paternalistic attitude toward the Aboriginal leadership, manifested in the government’s assumption that there is a need to “enhance community leadership”; funding shell games; lamentably poor communications with Aboriginal leaders; and, at the same time, a significant allocation of money to meet a wide variety of very real community needs.

Built upon a centuries-old, deeply troubled neocolonial relationship between Aboriginal people and the federal government, Aboriginal policy is marked by apparently disingenuous reporting of funding levels, a paternalistic attitude toward the Aboriginal leadership, a conspicuous failure to consult meaningfully with community stakeholders and — perhaps most serious of all — implementation methods that could hardly have been better calculated to exacerbate the already sharp divisions within the Aboriginal community.

It is reasonable to suppose that the money enables funding recipients to accomplish many worthwhile things. Moreover, the funding procedures, whatever their faults, do provide an incentive for community groups to define those needs for themselves, though that self-definition is distorted by government priorities that seem to draw little inspiration from local knowledge and understanding.

Whether or not the UAS and WPA succeed in meeting the UAS’s objective of narrowing the socio-economic gap between Aboriginal people and the rest of the population, therefore, it would not be fair to pronounce them failures. But they can hardly claim a significant degree of responsiveness to the Aboriginal community, and in the matter of increasing Aboriginal people’s control over their own lives, they probably represent a step backward.

The government gives evidence of good intentions in the significant funds it allocates to Aboriginal policy in Winnipeg, but then undoes some of that good in the process of administration.

Built upon a centuries-old, deeply troubled neocolonial relationship between Aboriginal people and the federal government, Aboriginal policy is marked by apparently disingenuous reporting of funding levels, a paternalistic attitude toward the Aboriginal leadership, a conspicuous failure to consult meaningfully with community stakeholders and — perhaps most serious of all — implementation methods that could hardly have been better calculated to exacerbate the already sharp divisions within the Aboriginal community.

If we return to the story briefly sketched at the beginning of this article and consider what Wayne Helgason and a group of fellow Aboriginal leaders were able to accomplish by working together, we can get some measure of how much better the millions the government is pouring into Aboriginal programming might be spent. Under the project funding model currently in force, money is doled out, in small sums, to discrete Aboriginal organizations, setting them to competing among themselves. This undoubtedly exacerbates the divisions within the community, imposes heavy administrative burdens on small organizations and makes them dependent on a state that many of them consider an alien presence.

Suppose, instead, that the federal government decided to draw on the talents of Winnipeg Aboriginal leaders and adopt a lump sum approach to funding. Instead of small contributions to individual organizations, put all the funding on the table and offer to make it available to the Aboriginal community as a whole, on the condition that Aboriginal leaders negotiate a large-scale program that they can agree on — one that withstands the reasonable scrutiny of the federal government — and create an organization to administer it, in cooperation with the government.

Undoubtedly the negotiation would involve unpleasantness and acrimony, some might refuse to participate, and no one would walk away from the table with more than half a loaf. But a large sum of money, with the potential it represents, is a strong incentive to serious negotiations, and the possibilities that might open up could far exceed those represented by the Aboriginal Centre.

Funding for the Winnipeg Partnership Agreement ran out in 2009. Funding for the Urban Aboriginal Strategy has been extended to 2012. A skilled and educated Aboriginal workforce is as important to the future of those cities with large Aboriginal populations as it is to the Aboriginal people themselves. Aboriginal leaders have good advice to offer regarding economic opportunity and necessary social supports. The government should turn to them for advice and offer them the incentives they need to pull together.

Photo: Shutterstock

Christopher Leo, a professor of city politics at the University of Winnipeg, blogs at

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