Winnipeg’s Boldness Project reimagines an urban landscape with Indigenous voices shaping policy

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Reimagining urban centres is not new for Indigenous people – First Nations, Métis and Inuit. As we’ve grown and adapted to the ever-changing landscapes of our traditional territories, we constantly imagine what these spaces would look like if we had a say in urban planning. Many of these urban centres are within the traditional territories of the Indigenous people who reside in them, so the space, while not new to them, has changed and is now unfamiliar.

As of 2016, nearly half of the Indigenous population in Canada live in urban centres. As Canadian cities grow, so does the Indigenous population. However, Indigenous people experience moving to and living in urban centres differently.

For example, with slightly more than 90,000 Indigenous people, Winnipeg is home to the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada. While Winnipeg’s Indigenous population spans the entire city, a large portion resides in the North End, where nearly 29 per cent of residents identify as Indigenous.

The North End is one of the oldest parts of the city. It has a long history of being spatially and socially segregated from the rest of Winnipeg due to the Canadian Pacific railyards that sever it from the rest of the city. The North End community has its strengths and is exceptionally resilient. However, it does have its challenges: affordable housing, poor employment opportunities and food insecurity, most of which are caused by systemic factors such as racism and inequality.

As the world reels from the pandemic, the many flaws in our current ways of doing are becoming more apparent. COVID-19 has put a magnifying glass over many of our problems such as social and economic inequalities, racism and residential dissimilarities – the extent to which population groups live apart in a shared urban space. It is no secret that Indigenous peoples face a myriad of challenges, especially while living in urban centres, and the pandemic has only made this worse.

More than a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, we are discussing what our cities will look like in a post-pandemic world. Are we returning to normal? A new normal? Some are realizing that returning to a pre-pandemic world is not something we want, as the pandemic has put a spotlight on the cracks in our societal foundations. There is a famous quotation that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. In some cases, the very solutions that we have used for social problems in Canada are the same ones that are causing the issues. One of the reasons why this continues to happen is that those most affected by the issues tend to be the least included in building the solutions. The question then becomes: How do we include those affected by these issues in building better solutions for the future?

The Winnipeg Boldness Project (the Project) is an Indigenous social innovation initiative working alongside Winnipeg’s North End community. The Project launched in 2014 and was started to explore new ideas for addressing early childhood outcomes, particularly early development instrument scores used to predict a child’s school readiness. However, the Project’s way of doing things is what sets it apart. It uses social innovation, which can be defined in many ways. Essentially, it is a process of supporting people in the development and delivery of new ideas and solutions to social problems. Indigenous innovation goes one step further to apply Indigenous knowledge to social innovation methods.

Like the Winnipeg Boldness Project, Indigenous social innovation models lean toward balancing power relations and decreasing the risk of perpetuating authoritative and colonial policies. Many organizations operate to address complex social challenges from a theory/thinking perspective. They rely on what is already being done and “best practice” models that, more often than not, aren’t easily applied across different communities.

However, the Project operates from an action/do perspective, acting more intuitively and relying on a “wise” practice model, taking the theory perspective and merging it with Indigenous knowledge and experience to remake a model that will fit a specific community. This can be seen through the work on our 12 prototypes or “proofs of possibilities” (POPs), which each reflect the community’s needs such as the health and wellness planning, early childhood engagement and the North End well-being measure.

Why does this matter? We need to include different voices. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada alike are facing complex social challenges, and now we need to deal with them in new ways. Tapping into different kinds of wisdom is essential. Indigenous knowledge, experience, perspective and wisdom are by and large untapped as a source for deriving social challenge solutions.