What happens when humans contrive differences based on generalizations rather than focus on specific attributes of people? A tale of one city becomes a tale of two cities… or of two continents, for that matter. Allow me to explain:
Everybody has a happy place. While I grew up, my happy place was summer camp. For me, camp was absolute magic; it was bliss. Every summer I would venture off for 3 to 6 weeks into what felt like a fantasy world where I could leave everything from my city life behind me. Well, almost everything… curious? Please read on. The days were filled with signing, cheering, playing, and learning while the evenings were filled with storytelling and programs that must have taken months to plan.
I was originally drawn to camp by its unfamiliarity. Camp presented an opportunity for me to immerse myself in the unknown. None of my school friends attended the same camps as me, so my summers were filled with fresh faces and completely new surroundings – always a welcome change from the status quo. It is funny: had I not been thrust into the unfamiliar world of summer camp at a young age, I probably would not have the skills/drive to go away for school or do my internship in Uganda. That’s right, Mom and Dad, you did this to yourself!
Like I said before, none of my school friends (notwithstanding a close family friend) attended camp with me. Rather, while I lived in a fairly affluent suburb on the north border of the city, the attendees of the summer camps that I frequented all lived in rich neighborhoods in South End of Winnipeg. However, given Winnipeg’s social and physical geography, I might as well have lived in Norway. I know what you are thinking: “come on Jeremy, Winnipeg is Winnipeg – you can divide up a giant snow bank how you like, but it is still a snow bank”. Well….. not exactly.
Winnipeg, like Kampala, is a two face. Heck, it might as well be two different cities entirely. Just like Kampala, Winnipeg is divided on several fronts; and just like Kampala the divides are influenced by colonialism, cultural imperialism and neoliberal globalization. Hmm, sound familiar? The main contrast between the two cities is how the divides are divided. While Kampala has poverty sprinkled all over the city, in Winnipeg there is a clear physical divide between the rich and poor. That divide is the Winnipeg train yard. The general rule is that if you live south of the tracks, then you live in the “rich” part of the city and if you live north of the tracks then you live in the “poor” part. That’s the general rule. Luckily, here at “Life as a Canadian on the Equator” we try to stay away from generalizations as they lead to homogenization, and I am not talking about the milk. So to be more specific, most of the city’s wealth is concentrated in three or four South End neighborhoods while a big chunk of poverty is concentrated in one or two North End neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, lots of Winnipegrs (myself included) tend to forget the specifics when they talk about the North and South Ends of the city. By doing so, they exacerbate the physical, social, and racial divides that already exist. My boss always says that “the devil is in the details”, and in this case the devil rears its head when Winnipegers forget the details – when they homogenize… once again, not the milk.
Here’s my subjective, overly-general interpretation of Winnipeg’s two cities:
A Southender will only venture north of the Tracks for two reasons: (1) to see a Rainbow Stage play in Kildonan Park; (2) to visit a grandparent who still lives in the North End. Northenders seldom venture south of The Forks, a public space a few kilometers south of the Tracks. Further, if you live in Point Douglas (one of the North End neighborhoods) than you have no place walking the streets of Tuxedo (one of the South End neighborhoods) and if you live in Tuxedo then you are probably terrified of setting foot in Point Douglas.
All of the rich kids from the South End go to private school or a trendy public school like Grant Park High if they feel like “toughing it out”. Northend kids go to public school. That is, unless your parents work in the South End and can drive you 30+ minutes to the other end of the city every morning. If you are a rich Northender stuck behind enemy lines after all of your “fufu” friends moved south, then your kids will brave the long school bus ride to a South End school every morning. God forbid they attend a public school north of the Tracks. The social divides, no matter how false or contrived they might be, then stay entrenched and people continue on with our lives.
Here’s the result of my overly-general interpretation of Winnipeg:
Alienation, misunderstanding, homogenization and shear racism. You might think that I am using hyperbole, but reality is not too far off. When I was 8 years old and took my first steps on the bus to camp all of the Southenders looked at me like I was from another country. I had never seen them and they had never seen me. In fact, I remember one of them asking me if I was from a different city. I replied, something along the lines of, “nope, same city, I just live north”… whoops. After that, many (although not all) of the campers did not take the time to ask me what my interests were or what my parents did. They knew I was from the North side of the tracks and to them that meant poverty and crime. It was evident that their classist parents’ generalizations about Winnipeg’s geography were already firmly entrenched in my fellow campers’ heads. Life’s tough when you’re 8.
Fortunately, I was able to use the campers’ generalizations to my advantage in my first couple of summers at camp. Instead of getting annoyed when a South End kid asked me if I lived in a crack house, I would jump at the opportunity to set the record straight. I remember one response I gave was something along the lines of, “Uhh, no. I live in a house that looks just like yours in a neighborhood that looks just like yours. The only difference is that I only have to drive 45 minutes to Winnipeg Beach [a popular cottage spot located on lake Winnipeg 70km north of the city] when you have to drive an hour and a half”. That would usually shut up half of the inquisitive campers pretty quickly. Nobody likes long car rides to the Beach. The classism was pretty pronounced during my first few camp experiences, but they eventually tapered off by the time I was 11 or so. Although, when I was 15 or 16 a particularly enlightened camper exclaimed: “I hear people in the North End are a bunch of native gang members”.
After rolling my eyes I composed myself and replied, “Yes there are a few gangs in the rougher neighborhoods, but how does that shape your opinion of me? Do I look like a gang member?”
“Am I from the North End?”
“Have you ever tried bannock?”
“…No. What’s that?”
“It’s a delicious type of bread prepared by Aboriginal people. You should come by my house some time and we can make some. My mother’s Aboriginal colleagues taught her how to bake mean batch of the stuff. I promise you she isn’t a gang member either.”
… I don’t think I won that particular camper over, but sometimes you can’t have your bannock and eat it.
However, as time went on and people realized that I wasn’t going to stab them, I ended up making quite a few friends in my first summer with the Southenders, behind enemy lines. Notwithstanding the classism, I enjoyed my first experience at summer camp so deeply that I decided to return the next year, and the next, and the next. As a matter of fact, I returned to camp every summer for 10 years. With every year that I came back, I noticed the classism disappear more and more. As the years went by and the campers took interest in me and not the neighborhood I lived near, I found myself going to the South End during the school year for birthday parties and general teenage antics. My camp friends were still completely separate from my school friends, but at least I saw them once or twice a year outside of camp. When I got my drivers license travel to the south became a bit easier so spending time with my camp friends quickly became a regular occurrence. By the end of high school the transformation was complete. While the 8 year old Jeremy constantly had to convince people that the entire north part of the city was not a drug ring or giant brothel, the only thing that 18 year old Jeremy had to worry about was convincing his parents that he wasn’t doing drugs or going to brothels with his South End friends… he wasn’t, okay!?!!
The moral of my little fable? When we generalize we mistake the forest for the trees. More, the only way to mitigate dangerous generalizations is through dialogue, not silence. Winnipeg only becomes two cities when people fail to see the immense diversity that lies therein. Wealth and poverty might be concentrated in some areas that happen to align with physical geography, but that does not mean that all of the people in those areas should be homogenized. When we make assumptions about large groups of people without getting to know the individuals, we effectively rob those individuals of agency and by extension dehumanize them.
The same principle applies to the way people in the West view Africa. Just like we cannot assume that all Northenders are poor, we cannot conclude that because Africa is portrayed as poor, that all Africans are poor. We cannot also think that people surrounded by poverty are inherently unhappy. More, just because there is war in Africa, we should not believe that the entire continent is in a perpetual state of insecurity. Finally, the fact us Westerns live in the rich neighborhoods of the world does not mean that we should fear what lies in the poor ones. If the West is to get over inaccurate representations of Africa, people need to understand the people, not the place.
So, when I get back to Canada and an enlightened fellow citizen exclaims: “I hear people in Africa are a bunch of poor slum-dwellers”. Here is what I will reply after rolling my eyes and composing myself:
“Yes there are a few poor people who live in slums, but why does that shape your opinion of an entire continent? Aren’t there poor people in Canada?”…”Have you ever tried matooke?”… “It’s a delicious type of mashed banana prepared by Ugandan people. You should come by my house some time and we can make some. My colleagues at work taught me how to bake mean batch of the stuff. I promise you, they aren’t poor slum-dwellers either.”
Right now Winnipeg is still a tale of two cities, but I think things are getting better as more people dare to venture to the other side of the tracks. I wish I could say the same thing about Africa’s relationship with the West.
From your friendly neighborhood camper,