David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Looking Past the Label of the "Wrong Side of the Tracks"

Brandon Sun, July 8, 2019 – David McConkey

Like many of us, I have been looking at the MMIWG report: the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. At the same time, I have been preparing to return to Brandon’s ghetto for this summer’s Doors Open Brandon. Juxtaposing the two in my mind has me pondering questions about the Canadian and local experience. How have we perceived “ourselves” and “others” over the years? How have we treated one other? And now, how can we help all of us to be our best selves?

Let’s start by going back to the ghetto. In June 1902, a Brandon Daily Sun reporter ventured to the “flats” – the area north of downtown between the CPR tracks and the Assiniboine River. The reporter discovered that the city had grown to the extent that it now had a “slum.” Sun readers, the reporter observed, hardly would have “imagined that in the clean little city of Brandon there would be such a class of dwellings.” The headline was “Brandon’s Ghetto: Life Among the Lowly.”

Who were these “foreigners” who were “apparently living in filth” right here in Brandon? They were part of a mass migration of people from eastern Europe to western Canada. The immigration had been orchestrated by Clifford Sifton, Brandon’s MP and a member of the federal cabinet in the 1890s.

Sifton recognized that there were, in his words, “hardy peasants who were anxious to leave Europe and start life under better conditions in a new country.” Many of these folks came from Galicia, then in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Historian Margaret MacMillan described it: “Corrupt, poor, the most backward part of a decaying empire, Galicia was a byword for misery.” No wonder Galicians grabbed the opportunity to come to Canada!

When they arrived here, the immigrants encountered many challenges. Many of their farms did not pan out, and they moved to cities like Brandon. Newcomers were often regarded in derogatory ways. They were “foreigners” – or worse. They were drinkers, fighters, criminals. In his 1977 history, ”Brandon: A City 1881 - 1961,” G.F. Barker had this description for 1913:  “Newly-arrived North Side residents of European extraction, given to both bottles and battles, were hailed regularly before the [court].”

We humans have evolved to think of “us” as members of an “in group” and to look suspiciously at “others” who are different. And we look for – and create – differences between ourselves and others. And so we build a foundation for racism, stereotyping, xenophobia.
 
These perceptions can be so subtle that they become an accepted part of the fabric of society. Look again at that sentence by Barker. Some of his descriptive words could be neutral or positive, but here they take on a more sinister complexion. Take the otherwise ambiguous term “North Side.” But in Brandon it meant the poor part of town, the undesirable “flats” that often flooded, the wrong side of the tracks.
 
The story of the immigrants from Galicia and their descendants – today called Ukrainian-Canadians – is considered a great success. A people leave a region in Europe that was “a byword for misery.” They survive in an often hostile new land. They start with virtually nothing and today thrive in a prosperous multicultural country that is one of the best in the world.

That narrative is challenged by the MMIWG report. Because those immigrants and their descendants now stand accused of being part of a settler society that perpetuated – and continues to perpetuate – a genocide of Indigenous women and girls. You can understand why this accusation has prompted thoughts and questions in my mind and in the minds of others. I plan to explore this in future columns.

I encourage all citizens to look at the MMIWG report – it can be easily found online. And if you would like to take a walking tour through the “ghetto” of Brandon’s past, please join me during the Doors Open Brandon weekend of July 20 - 21. That stroll will be a chance to re-visit some of Brandon’s history. And to reflect on perceptions, peoples and possibilities.

* * * *
See also: 

Reflections on “Brandon’s Ghetto”

Dark Side of Brandon’s Past

Reflections on the Great War

East End Pioneer Clifford Sifton Changed the Face of Canada

An Education Lesson From 100 Years Ago

Discovering Rewritten History

 

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
204-726-9440
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