Brian Bowman may not have been elected on the strength of his Métis heritage, but Winnipeg’s first Indigenous mayor has made it clear that the Aboriginal population is a priority to him.
A week after being sworn in to run the city that boasts the largest urban Aboriginal population in the country, Bowman not only appointed a new chair of the Winnipeg Police Board, who shares a “key priority” to ensure Aboriginal people, like teenager Tina Fontaine, get the attention they deserve, but has taken on the portfolio of Urban Aboriginal Opportunities.
“I changed the name to opportunities (from affairs) and also appointed myself because this is something that is very important to me personally. It’s very important to the citizens of Winnipeg, so as mayor I wanted to serve in that capacity myself and be more hands on,” said Bowman.
Bowman’s victory on Oct. 23 was a decisive one taking 47.54 per cent of the vote. Bowman, a privacy lawyer, entered the campaign as an underdog, with former NDP politician Judy Wasylycia-Leis the front runner.
Another surprise in the race for mayor was the third place showing of Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a University of Manitoba administrator.
Aboriginal voters turned out in record numbers spurred on in the last few weeks through the grassroots campaign and Facebook page ‘Winnipeg Indigenous Rock the Vote 2014!’
Ouellette, who is Cree, has no doubt that his strong showing was due to the Indigenous vote.
“I think it’s because they had someone who was running who looked somewhat like what an Aboriginal person might look like. I don’t hide who I am. I have long hair, I’m traditional and I hope I was speaking to their values. I hope I was talking to things that actually meant something to them,” said Ouellette. He notes his campaign didn’t focus on Aboriginal issues as much as how the issues affected everyone, including the city’s Aboriginal people.
Ouellette believes Bowman’s victory was not strengthened by the strong Aboriginal showing.
“I don’t think anyone knew he was Metis,” said Ouellette, who points to early campaign statements by Bowman identifying his sister and mother as Métis. “When he saw there was no fear of being Aboriginal and people were very supportive of it in Winnipeg, (then) he decided, ‘Well, I’m Métis.’”
Bowman says he doesn’t believe being Aboriginal contributed to his victory.
“I think most people voted for me just because of the platform and who I am as a person. I don’t think my election win had too much to do with my family heritage. And I’ve been careful … in not making that why people should vote for me,” he said.
Bowman says he doesn’t want the title of being the first Indigenous mayor of a large city to be nothing more than symbolism.
He plans to “act as a bridge builder” and focus on what he sees as a city-wide change in attitude – despite a recent survey that indicated 76 per cent of Winnipeggers believe there is a serious divide between the city’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.
Bowman says organizations like the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and the Business Council of Winnipeg are setting “Aboriginal issues at the top of their agenda” for the first time and, through his own community work, he has seen priority given to creating greater opportunities for the growing Aboriginal population.
“So there’s a lot of goodwill and a lot of energy … and that’s something I want to amplify as mayor,” he said.
Ouellette is hopeful that Bowman will put forward policies that will benefit all Winnipeggers, including the Indigenous population.
“At the end of the day… I don’t want to be too critical of him because I think perhaps he’s on a new path and it might be very good for him, it might be very good for Aboriginal people, because if he’s now saying that he’s very proud of his Métis heritage, then I hope he’s going to demonstrate that and do something for the people,” said Ouellette.
Bowman, whose swearing-in ceremony included a blessing from an Ojibway Elder, plans to deliver for all Winnipeggers.
“I think whether you’re Aboriginal or not, you can do good work in that area,” he said. “All I can do is ensure people I’m going to work as hard on this and other priorities and the fact that I’m Métis, I hope, will allow people to know that my intentions in helping improve the lives of young Aboriginal people is right from the heart and I’m going to do everything I can to help.”