Macdonald discusses the reporting and reaction to her January 2015 Maclean’s article, “Welcome to Winnipeg.”

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Since 2008, Nancy Macdonald has been writing for Maclean’s from Vancouver. Most recently, she covered the issue of racism in her hometown of Winnipeg. The article, titled “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst, ran this past January—grabbing the attention of Canadians across the country and stirring up a mix of reactions. Macdonald discussed how this article came to fruition.


J-Source: Did you pitch the Winnipeg story, or was it assigned to you by an editor?

Macdonald: It was a combination. My editor is from Winnipeg, as I am, and he came up with that angle. I think he made a really intelligent decision because the reason the story led the national team and the reason it got the attention it did was all due to that angle he chose. All I did was write it. 

I think I would call it a story of provocation intended to get a response from the community, from the leadership, to try to draw attention to an issue. 


J-Source: A story like this is such a big topic. How did you start working on it? 

Macdonald: Well, with Tina’s death. When Tina Fontaine died in August, something started happening in Winnipeg. Long before the article came out, something about Tina’s death—perhaps because Tina was the youngest Indigenous woman to have ever been killed—but there was something about her story. 

She came from this wonderful family and yet almost within six weeks of being in Winnipeg, she died. It was just such a heartbreaking story, and what happened in Winnipeg after that was the community really started to come together. I spoke with a professor at the University of Manitoba called Niigaan Sinclair and he helped organize a rally after Tina died. It was actually not just a rally for Tina but also for the “Homeless Hero” who saved two people from drowning in the Red River in Winnipeg. His body and Tina’s body were found within 24 hours of each other. 

Niigaan Sinclair told me that never before in his life had he seen so many white people at an event. Normally, at these rallies for Indigenous issues in Winnipeg you see the same faces over and over again and they’re mostly from the Aboriginal community. He said something about Tina’s murder had brought out all of these new faces to this rally. From then on, something was changing. There was dialogue around this issue. So that’s how we approached the story. We wanted to try to figure out what’s going on in Winnipeg and that’s why we started with Tina’s murder. 


J-Source: How did you find so many people willing to talk to you about racism? 

Macdonald: I spent about a week in Winnipeg. I spent a whole day out in Sagkeeng First Nation, where Tina was raised, and met with her family and another family of a murdered Indigenous girl. I spent a long time in Winnipeg in the North End. I met with community leaders. Some of them helped put me in touch with some of the people you saw in the story. I would reach one person and have these difficult conversations and then get them to suggest someone else to talk to. I did a few streeters but for the most part I reached all those specific people through other people.


J-Source: What were the challenges that came with doing this story?

Macdonald: I think for the most of it, a lot of the challenges came after the story. It got a lot of attention. Some positive, a lot of it negative. In this environment where people can reach you 24 hours a day on Facebook, Twitter, through email and on comment boards, I got a lot of critical comments. I got nasty messages. Some of it was sexualized. I’ve never faced anything like that before so I found that difficult to deal with. I went back to Winnipeg to continue to report it. I covered an event [that anti-violence activist Michael] Champagne has every week in the North End, and suddenly I was being interviewed wherever I went by TV and radio journalists. 

The reporting wasn’t all that hard, I found. I found people really willing to talk about this.


J-Source: If you could change anything about the story, what would you? 

Macdonald: I spent two weeks, which is rare in journalism that you’re able to spend that much time on a story. It is something that you do as quickly as you can. I found a really intelligent critique of this story by someone at a publication called Briarpatch. His frustration was that I didn’t differentiate between in-your-face racism and systemic racism. If I could go back, I would tweak the article to more clearly draw distinction between those two types of discrimination.


J-Source: What were some of the things that just went smoothly that you didn’t think would, that weren’t a challenge?

Macdonald: I never expected the mayor to respond the way he did. The morning he called that press conference, I assumed he would do what every mayor normally does in this situation. I expected him to stand up and be Captain Winnipeg and say Nancy Macdonald is wrong, Maclean’s magazine is wrong. We don’t have this problem in our community. Instead, he did something so much braver, so much more rare. He stood up and acknowledged there was a problem and he’s going to do everything he can to try to change that. I admire him so much. I admire the people of Winnipeg so much. I don’t think another community in the country would respond with such grace, such intelligence, and such heart to a challenge like this.

This story has been edited and condensed.

[[{“fid”:”4150″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”4928″,”width”:”3264″,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 151px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]] Robyn Tocker is a soon-to-be journalism graduate of the University of Regina and she will be starting her career as staff reporter at the Fort Qu’Appelle Times.