Racism is an integral part of Winnipeg’s history

“I’m a fucking Nazi, bitch! I’m a Nazi! You know what a Nazi is?”

In Seven Sisters Falls, just outside of Winnipeg, a passing connection between two strangers exploded into a one-sided violent confrontation. When Kaniz Fatima, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman visiting Manitoba from Calgary, asked Nick Wadien for directions, Wadien responded by proudly proclaiming that he was a Nazi, and that Fatima should “go back to [her] country” and “take [her] head towel off.”

When the filmed confrontation found its way to news outlets around the world, Wadien used the voice Global News offered to state that his actions were a response to the stress he was facing because “the ‘turbaners’ wouldn’t leave me alone, so I got mad.” He said he actually is not a Nazi, despite his filmed statements pointedly declaring the opposite.

The fabricated word ‘turbaners’ – which disturbingly insinuates that Wadien may have been mixed up on just what religious identity he was so filled with vitriol towards – aside, one could argue that the most frightening part of Wadien’s brief time on our collective radar is just how quickly he went from loudly declaring Nazi status to sheepishly recanting.

So what gives a man in this province the confidence not only to spit racist hate speech, but to expect his deeply idiotic reasoning for doing so to be taken seriously? More importantly, what makes him only one of many?

Cowardly racial taunts seemed to be an especially recurring presence in Winnipeg’s news circuit this summer: between the pharmacy owner who was harassed by strangers in the middle of his daughter’s birthday party, the anti-Semitic graffiti  littered along Wellington Crescent, and the Point Douglas resident  who actually invited journalists into his home to see the swastika painted on his wall, August alone was rife not just with racist hatred, but confident racist hatred.

The first answer that will come to many a reader’s mind might be the escalating racial tension south of us – Donald Trump’s presidency is seen by many as having been built on a basis of race-based and xenophobic cruelty and the recent “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a powerful example of the consequence that comes when racists are given a voice by people in power. And while this is an astute observation, it is one that deftly sidesteps an important facet of our province’s history: Manitoba has been home to active racists for a long, long time.

Winnipeg’s long history of tolerating racists goes back as early as the 1930s, when the Canadian Nationalist Party (CNP) thrived in the city. The CNP, which advocated for fascism and encouraged its members to harass Jewish immigrants, took notes from Nazi storm troopers, and in fact earned the approval of many. One fan letter from an American Nazi in 1933 thanked a German citizen in Winnipeg for their “willingness to co-operate with us in establishing Nazi groups throughout Canada.”

The CNP was not just some underground collective, however. Its founder, William Whittaker, was able to procure police protection and support for CNP rallies. If that itself was not enough to empower these disturbed people, members of the party were given explicit approval from Colonel Ralph Webb, Winnipeg’s mayor at the time, to use Winnipeg’s army barracks for military training.

Fast forward 80 years. Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada at the time, uses public fear to his own advantage when he calls “Islamicism” – another fabricated word – the greatest threat to Canadian citizens in 2011. While Winnipeg’s history of Islamophobic hate is more brief, it is gaining speed at a sickening pace.

A Winnipeg group working to provide employment for Syrian refugees has been forced to remove many hateful messages from its social media profile.  Months earlier, a Muslim man leaving the gym found a slab of meat, presumed to be pork, placed on his windshield. It could be that the only thing these people know about Islam is that its followers abstain from pork products, because the Manitoba Islamic Association has been anonymously mailed bacon.

While these attempts to frighten or intimidate people in Winnipeg’s Muslim community may seem mild in comparison to what Muslims in other cities have faced, it is still racism put in action. On Sept. 9, the hate group World Coalition Against Islam will congregate in Winnipeg. These are the actions of people empowered by the words of Canadian officials.

In 2015, Winnipeg’s long and continuing history of targeting disenfranchised peoples reached an international audience when Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story declaring Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada. The ensuing article included interviews with Indigenous residents of the city that claimed racist taunts were a constant in their lives. One interviewee especially noted that police would use their place of power in our society to mistreat him without reason.

The article made waves in Winnipeg. Mayor Brian Bowman choked up in a press conference not long afterward, stating that Winnipeg had a “responsibility to turn this ship around.” Later attempts to turn said ship around included a march around the Canadian Museum for Human Rights organized by Bowman.

This province’s history sits on a foundation of racism and violence – the Red River Rebellion, which pitted Métis revolutionary Louis Riel against the white, English-speaking governor Sir William McDougall, was crucial to why Manitoba is a province today. To ignore that and conveniently point the finger solely at the American alt-right disrespects every Manitoban who has taken direct action to fight back against fascism and hatred, be it the communist-led Anti-Fascist League of the 1930s, or the hundreds of people who attended the “Silence of Violence #WinnipegAgainstFascism” community discussion just weeks ago.

It is dangerous to continue to perpetuate the false notion that Canada is somehow the United States’ “nicer neighbour.” It is perhaps more dangerous to assume that identity and think we have only been tarnished recently by said neighbour.

Instead of patting ourselves on the back for not yet facing a situation like that in Charlottesville, it is more productive to realize that history has proven we are capable of the same hatred and violence. White nationalist groups continue to survive in Winnipeg, and to continue to collate and fight back against this city’s lowest of the low, one must not only acknowledge this city’s dark past, but also utilize the knowledge gained from past experiences.