In January 2015, Maclean’s magazine boldly declared that Winnipeg was Canada’s most racist city. The problem is not relegated to back alleys and a handful of neighbourhoods. This issue seeps into the fabric of all aspects of civic society, and Winnipeg’s schools are no exception. A week before the article hit newsstands, a teacher from what is considered one of Winnipeg’s best schools posted on Facebook this inflammatory comment about the city’s Aboriginal population: “They have contributed NOTHING to the development of Canada. Just standing with their hand out. Get to work, tear the treaties. Why am I on the hook for their cultural support?” The Winnipeg School Division reacted with immediate damage control, placing the teacher on leave without pay and responding with the statement: “We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive working and learning environment for all of our students and our staff.” This incident is just a daily example of discrimination experienced by Winnipeg’s young people, and it’s a problem that can’t be fixed with a press release or termination. Some Winnipeg residents believe that the solution to these issues might be found in a more proactive and bottom-up approach to healing and reconciliation. And they are taking this responsibility into their own hands.
With the leadership of Vice Principal, Cree Crowchild, guidance counsellor, Robin Wilson, and other supportive staff members, the students of St. John’s High School in Winnipeg’s north end decided they were tired of letting their divisions define them. Instead of taking a reactive approach to dealing with racism and bullying, they implemented positive behaviour intervention and a restorative practices plan, a method that centres around empathy and accountability.
Cree Crowchild sat with us to share how The Empathy Toy helped launch a 21 Leaders program at St. John’s High School, an initiative that empowers students to lead one another in ushering in a new culture of respect and understanding that has, in fact, reduced conflict-based office referrals by 85%.
Twenty One Toys:
How did you feel when Maclean’s Magazine named Winnipeg The Most Racist City in Canada? Were you surprised?
Vice Principal Cree Crowchild:
I was pretty upset. To peg one city as being the most racist was shocking because I’ve lived in a variety of cities and all of them seem to have aspects of racism. Racism is everywhere – it’s about how you deal with these issues that sets you apart from other cities. In this case, the lack of what Winnipeg was doing was at the forefront of labelling it the most racist city. But, there is a lot of good things going on in this city that many people don’t know about. And if people don’t hear about the good stuff, those negative comments come to the surface. So for me, this negative article helped in a positive way. I took this negative experience and thought, wow, what a great platform to showcase what we’re already doing, not just what we’re going to do in response to this article.