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"Dealing the race card: public discourse on the policing of Winnipeg's inner-city communities".


Our paper uses online comments posted in response to news items reporting the police shooting death of a young Aboriginal man to map out the ways in which power works through discourse. Specifically, we ask: how does this public discourse reproduce racial privilege? Our analysis shows that the majority of posters draw upon a 'discourse of denial' that de-historicizes the event and a 'discourse of responsibilization' that individualizes it. In the process, both discourses rely on a racialized dichotomy of 'Us versus Them' in which not just the deceased young man, but all Aboriginal peoples, become othered. We argue that while posters accuse Aboriginal peoples of 'playing the race' card when they connect McDougall's death to 'race' and racism, they are actually the ones 'dealing a card': the card of racial privilege. We conclude with a consideration of the role that research on Winnipeg's inner-city communities can perform in challenging this racialized discourse.

Keywords: racialized discourse, racial privilege, responsibilization, denial of racism


Notre document utilise des commentaires en ligne poste en reponse a des nouvelles qui rapportent la fusillade a mort d'un jeune homme autochtone par la police afin de demontrer comment le pouvoir fonctionpar le discours public. Plus precisement, nous demandons: comment ce discours public reproduire privileges raciaux? Notre analyse montre que la majorite des affiches s'appuyer sur un "discours de deni" qui de-historicise l'evenement et un "discours de la responsabilisation" qu'il individualise. Dans le processus, les deux discours reposent sur une dichotomie racialisees de "nous contre eux", dans lequel non seulement l'homme decede jeune, mais tous les peuples autochtones, deviennent "othered". Nous soutenons que, bien que des affiches accusent les peuples autochtones de jouer le jeu de cartes carte lorsqu'ils se connectent la mort de McDougall a la "face et le racism", qu'ils sont exux effectivement qui jouent le jeu de carte: la carte des privileges raciaux. Nous concluons par une reflexion sur le role que la recherche sur les communautes du centre-ville de Winnipeg peut effectuer a contester ce discours raciste.

Mots cles: le discours racialises, les privileges raciaux, la responsabilisation, le deni du racisme


As the other articles in this special issue of the CJUR demonstrate, research on Winnipeg's inner-city neighbourhoods has produced a rich "insider's view" of life in these communities and the many challenges encountered--including poverty and its related conditions. This research has also contributed to making changes to improve the life experiences of inner-city residents. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly evident in our work on justice, safety, and security issues in Winnipeg's inner-city communities that one of the barriers to making change is how events that occur in the inner city are represented in the wider public discourse. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the discourse surrounding the policing of Winnipeg's inner-city communities, especially in terms of the uneasy relations that exist between Aboriginal peoples and the police. These relations have a long and troubled history in Winnipeg's inner city. One prominent example is the 1989 fatal shooting of J.J. Harper by a Winnipeg police officer, an event that prompted the creation of the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (Hamilton and Sinclair 1991). More recently, Aboriginal-police relations have continued to be a controversial matter. On August 3rd, 2008 police were responding to a domestic disturbance call at an inner-city home when an altercation ensued between officers and a young Aboriginal man named Craig McDougall. McDougall was subsequently shot and killed by police. (1)

When McDougall's death was reported on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, it generated a wave of comments from posters (CBC 2008A and 2008B). The purpose of our paper is to utilize these comments to address the ways in which power works through discourse. Specifically, we ask: how does this online discourse work to reproduce racial privilege? In the following discussion we show how, in framing their opinions on McDougall's death, the majority of posters draw upon a 'discourse of denial' that de-historicizes the event and a 'discourse of responsibilization' that individualizes it. In the process, both discourses rely on a racialized dichotomy of 'Us versus Them' in which not just the deceased young man, but all Aboriginal peoples, become othered. We argue that while posters accuse Aboriginal peoples of 'playing the race' card when they connect McDougall's death to 'race' and racism, they are actually the ones 'dealing a card': the card of racial privilege. We conclude with a consideration of the role that research on Winnipeg's inner-city communities can perform in challenging this racialized discourse.

Racialized Discourse

Stuart Hall (2007, 56) explains discourse as "a group of statements which provide a language for talking about--i.e, a way of representing--a particular kind of knowledge about a topic." As Michel Foucault made clear in his work, discourses are imbued with power: "It is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together" (Foucault 1979, 100). For Foucault, power circulates and is contested through discourse: "power and knowledge directly imply one another ... [T]here is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute ... power relations" (Foucault 1980, 27 cited in Hall 2007, 57). As historically specific systems of meaning or ways of making sense of the world, then, discourses are shaped by social practices and in turn shape social relationships and institutions. Because they join together power and knowledge, certain discourses--and their corresponding discursive practices--come to dominate in society at particular points in time.

While discourses can address any manner of topics and reproduce power relations on a number of dimensions of difference (gender, sexuality, class), our interest is in mapping the racialized discourses that are at work in the online commentaries on the shooting death of Craig McDougall. Robert Miles (1989) identifies racialization as a "representational process of defining an Other." Hall (1997) elaborates that othering is a discursive move involving the establishment of a binary between Us and Them, where We are conformist, normal, and acceptable, and They are deviant, abnormal, and unacceptable. This othering process "facilitates the 'binding' or bonding together of all of Us who are 'normal' into one 'imagined community'; and it sends into symbolic exile all of Them--'the Others' who are in some way different--'beyond the pale'" (Hall 1997, 258). Racialization, therefore, is the exercise of a particular form of power by those who are racially privileged. Allan Johnson (2005, 103) explains "privilege":
 Privilege grants the cultural authority to make judgments about
 others and to have those judgments stick. It allows people to
 define reality and to have prevailing definitions of reality fit
 their experience. Privilege means being able to decide who gets
 taken seriously, who receives attention, who is accountable to whom
 and for what.

Racialized discourses are a significant means by which racial inequalities are produced in society; they are how "society gives voice to racism" (Wetherell and Potter 1992, 3). While racialization is "embedded in authoritative texts such as law books, government documents, and parliamentary debates" (Henry and Tator 2006, 9), it also occurs in everyday discourse, in how people make sense of events occurring around them (van Dijk 2000). In these terms, analyzing the discourses found in online comments relating to the police shooting death of a young Aboriginal man provides one window into how this process of othering occurs in public discourse.

The CBC News Items

The production of online public discourse surrounding McDougall's death does not begin with the posters' comments--or even with what is contained in the CBC news items per se. Rather, what gets said in relation to the event is informed by people's own experiential knowledge, their knowledge about similar events, and their exposure to other ways of sense-making about the topic of Aboriginal-police relations. This is especially the case given that the issue has a long history in Winnipeg. As we will see, posters draw upon these various knowledges in constructing their understandings of McDougall's death. Nonetheless, the CBC news items establish the initial context for the comments by providing certain details about the event as well as particular discursive frames for interpreting it.

Posted on Monday, August 4, 2008 and featuring the headline, "Winnipeg police shooting angers First Nation," the first CBC news item was brief, running only 283 words in length. The lead line of the item specified that the Wasagamack First Nation condemned the death of one of its young men by the police as a "senseless killing." The next day, a second CBC news item, running 1173 words in length, appeared with the headline: "Knife seized at scene of shooting death, police chief says." The opening sentence featured Police Chief Keith McCaskell's claim that police seized a knife at the scene of the shooting, in contrast to claims by family members that McDougall was not armed.

Neither of these news items provides much in the way of specific details as to what transpired. We are told that the deceased was a 26-year-old Aboriginal man named Craig McDougall, a nephew of J.J. Harper. We are told that police were called to a disturbance at the home at 5 AM on the Saturday morning that involved two young women. We are also told that two officers were placed on administrative leave and the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) homicide unit would be conducting an investigation. Although short on details, what the news items do provide are two competing ways of framing the event; specifically, the standpoint of the Aboriginal community (its leaders and members of McDougall's family) is juxtaposed with the standpoint of criminal justice officials (the Chief of Police, a police spokesperson, and the Minister of Justice).

From the standpoint of the Aboriginal community, McDougall's death was a "senseless killing" by police. According to family members, McDougall--described as a "caring person" that "wouldn't hurt anyone in authority'--was posing no threat to police as he was unarmed (save for holding a cell phone). Chief David Harper is quoted as naming McDougall's death as "unacceptable." The Chief also makes reference to a recent incident (which had received international media attention) involving the decapitation of a young man on a Greyhound bus near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. By pointing out that the perpetrator in that incident was not killed by police, Chief Harper raises the question of why deadly force had been used on McDougall. Aboriginal leaders were also cited as calling for a public inquiry into the conduct of the WPS as well as a number of substantive changes for improving Aboriginal-police relations. In addition, we are told that the family had retained the services of lawyer Don Worme, who had represented the families of Neil Stonechild and Matthew Dumas at inquiries into their deaths, thereby connecting McDougall's death to other controversial police killings of young Aboriginal men. As well, in recognizing McDougall as the nephew of J.J. Harper, both news items make the link to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which was instrumental in showcasing the depth of systemic racism against Aboriginal peoples in the criminal justice system.

The opposing standpoint, expressed by criminal justice officials, casts McDougall as a knife-bearing assailant who posed a threat to public safety. According to this version of the event, when police arrived at the house they were met by a man with a knife who refused to put down the weapon when asked to do so. The police deployed a Taser, and when that failed to subdue him, they resorted to using a gun. A police spokeswoman is quoted as saying, "Our officers don't make the choice to use their firearms lightly. If they chose to in this instance, it's because they were forced to." As well, both news items make a point of noting that this was the second time in less than two weeks that a young Aboriginal man "brandishing a weapon" had died in a confrontation with police, thereby constructing young Aboriginal men as 'dangerous.' In addition to highlighting the threat that McDougall posed to public safety, officials reinforce the Rule of Law: all citizens are subject to law, including those who enforce it. In this regard, we are informed that proper bureaucratic procedures were being followed in the wake of the shooting, and the Minister of Justice is reported as saying that he was confident that an investigation into McDougall's death would "uncover the full truth."

The Online Forum

A total of 834 comments were posted in relation to these two CBC news items: 181 in response to the first item and 653 to the second. We studied these comments with a view to coding the main themes contained in the posts, enabling an assessment of which discourses were most prominent. As with other online news forums, readers were also able to recommend comments that had been posted, (2) providing an indicator of how much support a particular post has received from readers.

When the news items were first posted, several of the readers who commented were mindful of the fact that little in the way of concrete information was provided in the media reports. A poster by the name of heysugar wrote: "before all the details come out, i think it is very unwise to start blaming anyone for anything." Nevertheless, on-line responders did not seem to be constrained by this lack of information.

The majority of posters were strongly opposed to the standpoint of the Aboriginal community reported in the two news items--especially in terms of the framing of McDougall's death as a "senseless killing." Winnipegger's comment, which received the most recommendations by readers of the first news item, was typical:

Winnipegger wrote: Posted 2008/08/04 at 4:04 PM ET "senseless killing"? The First Nations should be condemning the behavior of its people, not the police for doing their job! [...]

335 People recommended this comment Report abuse

But more than just chastising First Nations for their criticism of Winnipeg's police force, posters were intent on asserting their own ways of framing the incident.

In their analysis of racial bias in the Canadian English print media, Frances Henry and Carol Tator (2002 and 2006) use the term "democratic racism" to capture a fundamental tension between two features of the Canadian social fabric: an ideological commitment to democratic liberalism (reflected, for example, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and the racism that continues to flourish in everyday interactions and institutional practices. Democratic racism "is an ideology in which two conflicting sets of values are made congruent to each other. Commitments to democratic principles such as justice, equality, and fairness conflict with but also coexist with negative feelings about minorities and discrimination against them" (Henry and Tator 2002, 23-4). Henry and Tator uncover evidence of this democratic racism in editorials, feature writing, op-ed pieces, and columns of staff writers. In this regard, their analysis is instructive of the ways in which racialized discourse enters into the reporting of events by the print media, especially in relation to the role of social, political, and economic elites in setting the parameters of public discourse (2002, 24-5).

The public discourse found in the online comments regarding the shooting death of Craig McDougall can be said to constitute a lay or vernacular response. Nonetheless, it is a response that also reflects this democratic racism. In particular, two dominant discourses are evident in the posts: a 'discourse of denial' and a 'discourse of responsibilization.' Whereas the former draws upon ideals of formal equality in interpreting the event, the latter draws upon notions of individual choice and accountability. At the same time that these discourses rely on liberal democratic principles, they also engage in racialization: discursive acts that differentiate Us (the privileged) from Them (the Others).

The 'Discourse of Denial'

Tator and Henry (2000) hold that the "central discourse of democratic racism is denial, the failure to acknowledge that cultural, structural and systemic racism exists in a democratic liberal society." Denials of racism occur in the context of doubt that acts of discrimination take place. They are also typically accompanied by claims that racialized groups are hypersensitive about prejudice and see bias where none exists. This 'discourse of denial' was evident in 212 (26 percent) of the comments posted on the two news items. At the core of this discourse is the claim that the shooting of Craig McDougall by police had nothing to do with 'race.'

The comments by Carter and Tall Curtis were typical:

Carter wrote: Posted 2008/08/05 at 11:21 AM ET [...] Your heritage, the color of your skin, none of it matters... You threaten someone with a knife when they have a gun, don't be shocked when they come out on top. [...] 461 People recommended this comment Report abuse

TallCurtis wrote: Posted 2008/08/05 at 11:32 AM ET Senseless death??? Wrongdoing by the police??? Give me a break. I don't care if you are white, black, green, orange, blue, purple, chinese, indian, hindu, athiest, christian, jewish, or whatever other race or nationality or religion you think you are that absolves you from following our laws. In Canada it's one law for all people. Its pretty simple isn't it? [...] 234 People recommended this comment Report abuse

As in Tall Curtis' comment--"In Canada it's one law for all people"--in their efforts to substantiate the claim that 'race' is not at issue, posters draw on liberal democratic notions of equality. Lisnewfster, for instance, commented: "As Canadians.... shouldn't WE all be treated the same," while pitterpatter wrote: The laws are there for all Canadians--I don't believe for a second that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms excludes anyone." In the process, posters align with the criminal justice officials' standpoint on the event, expressing their support of the police for the difficult job they have as upholders of 'law and order.' Ataylor, for instance, wrote: "Police ... have morals like you and I believe it or not ... I am nearly 100% positice [sic] no cop would kill because a man was aboriginal." Bubbajones was similarly supportive of police: "All i can say is big deal. Glad the cops are safe.... If anyone thinks the police have an easy job and that they could do it better by all means apply and join a police force."

In keeping with this liberal discourse, posters also adhere to the doctrine of 'equality of opportunity': since success is determined by achieved as opposed to ascribed characteristics, everyone in society should be treated the same. As Tator and Henry (2002, 230) note, "this notion is based on an ahistorical premise--that we all begin from the same starting point, and that every group competes on a level playing field." In holding to this view, posters are resentful of the unwarranted sense of entitlement and advantages perceived to be held by Aboriginal peoples. Finger13 commented: "I am proud of multiculturalism, I really am. But the First Nations have no business believing that they have more rights than the rest of us." Lacrosseguy opined: "This is just proof that the babying of the native people of Canada has to stop, you have many advantages if you choose to use them."

Since 'race' is ostensibly not at issue--as 'equality of all' prevails--the focus turns to those claiming otherwise. In particular, Aboriginal leaders who raise the issue of 'race' are seen as engaging in a "blame game" that involves exploiting McDougall's death for their own political purposes:

prairiedoc wrote:Posted 2008/08/04

at 5:28 PM ET Shooting angers First Nation? The standard, superficial and unfounded accusations of racism are once again played, perhaps out of political grandstanding, by the Aboriginal leaders. [...]

226 People recommended this comment Report abuse

Along these same lines, Aboriginal leaders are accused of "playing the race card" when they condemn McDougall's death as a "senseless killing" by police. Appearing in 34 of the posts, this phrase invokes the metaphor of a card game in which players endeavour to use 'race' as a trump card in order to gain advantage. Relaxalready's comment was typical:

relaxalready wrote: Posted 2008/08/05

at 11:32 AM ET If this incident happened to anyone of any other race in Winnipeg, it would not still be news. The deck of race cards being played by Native leaders is getting thin.

226 People recommended this comment Report abuse

Within this 'discourse of denial,' racism is understood as explicit individual acts. As Henry and Tator (2000) explain, "it tends to be identified as an isolated phenomenon relating to a limited number of social deviants, economic instability, or the consequence of "undemocratic" traditions that are disappearing from the Canadian scene." As a result, history and systemic processes are deemed irrelevant for understanding McDougall's death. The colonization of Aboriginal peoples--if recognized at all--is treated as an historical artefact that has no bearing on contemporary times:

Flintstone wrote:Posted 2008/08/05

at 3:07 PM ET [...] Fact is at some point people including aboriginals need to grow up; become adults and stop blaming their problems on things from centuries ago. [...]

67 People recommended this comment Report abuse

thepear wrote:Posted 2008/08/05

at 10:57 PM ET Yah, white people took the land. So what? It's not "ours", we didn't enslave aboriginals or kick them out. That was done by different people in a different time. You're here, we're here, that's the way it is. Accept it and move on [...] And by the way, if there was no white man here to stop this punk, would you be happier to have these types of young thugs running around your teepee villages stabbing you all to death? Probably not.

21 Peoplerecommendedthis comment Report abuse

While Flintsone draws on paternalism--telling Aboriginal peoples to "grow up"--thepear defends colonial practices. In his view, not only is history irrelevant but Aboriginal peoples should be thankful that white people colonized them; otherwise, they would still be living in their "teepee villages."

Although posters are obviously keen to deny the import of 'race' for understanding McDougall's death, it is clear that 'race' still enters into the discourse, pointing to the fundamental tension within the 'discourse of denial': at the same time they claim that equality prevails, posters engage in the othering of Aboriginal peoples. In this sense, othering serves a unique purpose in social struggle: it acts as a rationale on which power relations rest, justifying power imbalances and cementing the position of members of the dominant group. Cast as Other, Aboriginal peoples are thereby not only excluded from privilege, their exclusion is normalized.

This 'discourse of denial' does not exist on its own, but typically appears in the posts in tandem with the 'discourse of responsibilization.'

The 'Discourse of Responsibilization'

"Responsibilization" is a term that has gained prominence in recent years as a way to refer to a new strategy for the government of conduct in advanced liberal societies, whereby individuals "should be obliged to be prudent, responsible for their own destinies, actively calculating about their futures and providing for their own security and that of their families" (Rose 2000, 324). Accountability, control over one's fate, and government of one's self become the catchphrases of this liberal rationality. Those who refuse to become responsible, to govern themselves, therefore pose a "risk" to be managed, and are readily made subject to condemnation.

While responsibilization can be found operating in a number of different sites (the criminal justice system, for one; see: Hannah-Moffat 2000), it has invaded the public sphere more generally. The 'discourse of responsibilization' was evident in 308 (37 percent) of the posts, and takes a number of forms.

For one, the onus for the social disorder that McDougall's death symbolizes is placed on Aboriginal peoples, especially their leaders:

Mr. Rocket wrote: Posted 2008/08/04

at 4:20 PM ET [...] God forbid aboriginal leaders demand accountability and responsibility to one of their own.

308 People recommended this comment Report abuse

Gone Fishin wrote: Posted 2008/08/05

at 12:37 AM ET [...] BOTTOM LINE: This was a result of FIRST NATIONS LEADERS FAILING MISERABLY they do not teach their children right from wrong and their kids end up getting killed--they need to stop pointing fingers at everyone else and take the responsibility for what their people have become.

119 People recommended this comment Report abuse

At the same time, posters are intent on denying their own responsibility for the social and economic conditions that plague Aboriginal communities:

Canuck_girl wrote:Posted 2008/08/05

at 1:33 PM ET [...] APPARENTLY, before I was born, my ancestors (that I never met) did something really naughty.... are we ever going to get over this? I'm sorry for what happened to your people ... but as no one alive today had anything to with the slaughtering of your people [...]

43 People recommended this comment Report abuse

By framing the issue as a problem 'of' Aboriginal peoples, blame easily shifts to the Aboriginal family. Posters cast McDougall's parents as responsible for not teaching their son respect for authorities. Coltt115 commented: "Who is at fault, I am old school and believe the parents are at fault for they didn't teach their son that the police are the authority, especially in the city of Winnipeg," while frozen wrote: "Maybe instead of complaining and getting lawyers involved, the family should take responsibility for raising a son who would think that it is acceptable to wave knives at police." Although media reports did not suggest that McDougall had been drinking at the time, GWinnipeg not only made this assumption, but held McDougall's family responsible: "His family failed him in teaching him that you shouldn't consume alcohol to the point of losing control.... His family failed him in teaching not to endanger the general public. His family failed him in teaching not to listen to police officers. Blame yourselves, not the police and the rest of the general public who live their lives within the constraints of the law."

Responsibility, however, is ultimately placed upon the deceased young man. The most recommended comment in the forum was posted by Purelogic:

Pure logic wrote: Posted 2008/08/05

at 11:18 AM ET [...] Has anybody thought ... hmmm, maybe the person responsible for the death of McDougall is ... uh ... McDougall? [...] Why are we supporting all these people who, basically, cause this themselves. [...]

663 People recommended this comment Report abuse

Other posters reinforced this standpoint. Flintstone commented that "Individual responsibility needs to be paramount here. This person chose to refuse and in a sense chose hoe [sic] he was going to die." DaPegger concurred: "If you want to enjoy the benefits of civilised society, you have to accept the responsibilities that come with those benefits." By calling on the imagery of "civilized society," McDougall is cast as a "failed citizen" (Rose 2000, 337). In the process, the historical referent of Aboriginal peoples as 'savages' is invoked.

As one of what Nikolas Rose (2000, 331) would refer to as the "excluded"--those individuals who are unable to "ensure their own well-being and security through their own active self-promotion and responsibility for themselves and their families"--McDougall is readily demonized with a litany of disparaging labels. Posters refer to him as "just another idiot with a knife," a "criminal," a "scumbag," a "crazy drunken knife wielder," a "gang banger," and a "monster." Perhaps one of the most explicit comments in this othering of McDougall came from jefftobo: "one less problem for society, one less welfare check signed for, numerous less bastard children spawned from this idiots seed:)."

In this liberal worldview, then, individuals' actions are reduced to a matter of 'choice'--the choice to make the 'right' decisions. But similar to the 'discourse of denial,' the 'discourse of responsibilization' contains a fundamental tension. On the one hand, McDougall is responsibilized--it was his 'choice' as to whether to put down the knife he was supposedly holding when police 'asked' him to do so--and is roundly denounced by posters for making a 'bad' choice. In these circumstances, police are thereby justified in their use of lethal force. But the discourse extends further as posters assert their opinions of why McDougall might make this 'bad' choice. At the same time as posters denounce attempts to bring 'race' into view, their own constructions are infused with racialization: Aboriginal peoples, their leaders, their families, and McDougall himself are all othered.

Countering Racialized Discourse

The CBC news items had the effect of setting the parameters for the comments posted on the forum by mapping out two competing frames for interpreting McDougall's death: the standpoint of Aboriginal peoples and the standpoint of criminal justice officials. While the majority of posters drew upon discourses of denial and responsibilization in aligning with the standpoint of criminal justice officials, there were posters who took issue with this version of the event; 237 (28.5 percent) of the comments were aligned more closely with the Aboriginal standpoint.

Several of these posters focused on the actions of the police and their treatment of Aboriginal peoples. For example, in questioning the police use of deadly force, NEOLCOLTD raised the issue of the extent to which class and racial privilege influence police practices: "If this had been a rich white boy in an affluent neighborhood you can bet there would be an inquiry and public outcry." Other posters drew on their knowledge of similar events in their critique of police actions. The recent Greyhound bus incident that involved the decapitation of a young man generated several exchanges about the circumstances under which police are entitled to utilize lethal force. Similarly, comparisons were drawn to the Taman case, in which an off-duty police officer had driven into the back of a woman's car on his way home from a post-work party of police officers. A provincial inquiry into her death was ongoing at the time of the McDougall shooting. As K.J. Sam wrote: "If our cops can get away with drunk driving and killing an innocent white woman, what chance does this boy have?"

Some of these posters, however, went further and sought to challenge the racialization that was evident in the majority of the posts. In some cases, this challenge took the form of naming the racism towards Aboriginal peoples contained in these comments. Jetdrag, for instance, remarked: "I'm disgusted by the amount of racism I see come out in the posts on any story run on anything involving the aboriginal community." A more substantial challenge to the discourses of denial and responsibilization came from posters who endeavoured to showcase systemic racism and underlying social and economic conditions. As one example:

Maiynnaise wrote: Posted 2008/08/06

at 9:45 AM ET [...] We are a colonial nation, and our indigenous people were denied their fundamental right to live with the land and generations were taught that their cultures and languages were not acceptable to the dominant British newcomers. [...] It takes a LONG TIME for a community to heal from this. All these comments are hurtful, and I would ask people to take a step back and put yourselves in that position and develop some understanding of the underlying social and political conditions that have resulted in so many conflicts between police and the aboriginal community.

2 People recommended this comment Report abuse

In drawing attention to substantive inequalities and placing Aboriginal peoples at the centre as opposed to the periphery, this form of counter discourse addresses the fundamental tensions of democratic racism in ways that simply naming the racism or questioning the deadly use of force by police cannot. As such, it holds the greatest potential for disrupting the dominant discourses of denial and responsibilization. Nevertheless, only 17 (4 percent) of the 403 posters made the connection between McDougall's death and broader systemic processes in their comments. These entries were not only overpowered by the combined force of denial and responsibilization discourses in the forum, they were also far less likely to receive the support of other readers. The average number of recommendations for a post containing a denial discourse was 43 and for a responsibilization discourse it was 35. In contrast, the average number of recommendations for a post challenging these discourses was only 5.

What is to be done?

The Internet has rapidly become a significant cultural space for the dissemination of public discourse on a range of social issues. Anyone with access to the Internet can now post a comment on a news item. While most sites have rules (netiquette) for these posts and are monitored to that effect, (4) posters are relatively free to express their views on a matter. As well, the anonymity of these forums likely encourages posters to be less inhibited in voicing their viewpoints--especially when controversial issues are involved.

As our analysis of the comments regarding the shooting death of Craig McDougall has demonstrated, however, the Internet is also a site for the propagation of racism. Contrary to the claims of posters who castigate Aboriginal peoples for "playing the race card" when they connect McDougall's death to 'race,' our analysis reveals that it is actually these posters who are dealing a card: the card of racial privilege. Their comments represent not merely an effort to silence the standpoint of Aboriginal peoples, but to define "reality" from a racially privileged position. As several writers have noted (Rothenberg 2005; Satzewich 2007, for example), one of the advantages that comes with being a member of a dominant racial group is the privilege of not even being aware of 'having' a race. In contrast, those who are racialized are continually reminded of their status as Other. Discourses, therefore, are powerful; they not only provide ways of sense making, but reproduce and reinforce relations of power. It is in this sense that power works through discourse.

So what can be done? One strategy would entail working to suppress the racialized discourse being propagated on the Internet. The online forum where these comments were posted is supposedly governed by rules that regulate what can be said (and readers can report abuse), but it is evident that these rules were not being enforced. While twelve comments were removed by the moderator, many remain that violate the rules specified by the CBC. A closer monitoring might eliminate the explicitly racist comments in these forums, but it is not likely to address the more deeply rooted racialization found in the majority of the posts. Rather than endeavouring to suppress these dominant discourses of democratic racism, therefore, a potentially more productive strategy would be to make accessible knowledge that challenges and disrupts the fundamental tensions contained within them. It is here where research on Winnipeg's inner-city communities can offer an important resource.

The problems encountered in Winnipeg's inner-city communities are complex. Discursive frames that rely upon a liberal conception of 'formal equality' and an individualized notion of personal 'choice' strip these problems of their historical and social roots and reduce them to a 'blame game' that puts the onus on individuals who live in the inner city as the primary source of--and solution to--these problems. But as we have seen, this framing is built upon fundamental tensions: the ahistorical assertion that 'we are all equal' and the individualized notion of 'choice' rely upon racialized constructions of the Other to make them resonate. Challenging this and other dominant discourses, therefore, requires making connections between biography and history, between individuals' social locations and wider systemic processes. Research that produces an "insider's view" accomplishes this task by making known the substantive inequalities that govern the life chances of inner-city residents. For instance, in this special issue of the CJUR Maya Seshia reports on her interviews with street sex-trade workers who have endured the violence, marginalization, and stigmatization emanating from the intersecting systemic forces that prevail in the inner city--namely, patriarchy and colonialism. In the process, Seshia's analysis reveals how the circumstances of women and transgenders involved in the Winnipeg street sex trade are exacerbated by criminal justice discourses that Other and responsibilize them for their victimization. By foregrounding such experiences against the historical backdrop of oppression, we can unveil and challenge the widespread refusal or inability to think systemically about social relations. Furthermore, by giving a voice to inner-city residents, we can also disrupt the othering process, such that their exclusion is no longer made to appear 'normal'--but profoundly unacceptable.


The research on which this paper is based is part of the work being undertaken within the Justice, Safety, and Security stream of the "Transforming Aboriginal and Inner-City Communities" project of the Manitoba Research Alliance that is funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities (SSHRC) Community/University Research Alliance (CURA) grant. The authors would like to thank Susan Prentice, Maya Seshia, Jim Silver, and the two anonymous CJUR reviewers for their helpful feedback on various versions of this paper.


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Elizabeth Comack

Department of Sociology

University of Manitoba

Evan Bowness

Department of Sociology

University of Manitoba


(1) McDougall's death was one of several incidents involving Aboriginal-police relations to garner public attention that summer. In June, 2008 the inquest into the death of Matthew Dumas began in a Winnipeg courtroom. Dumas was shot in January of 2005 after being stopped by police. On July 22, 2008 17-year-old Michael Langan died after being tasered by police officers.

(2) Readers are prevented from making multiple recommendations on a particular post as the site allows for only one recommendation from the same IP address.

(3) As in this post, all posts have been quoted verbatim.

(4) See:
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Author:Comack, Elizabeth; Bowness, Evan
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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