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Transforming a notorious Winnipeg neighbourhood into a hub for education

The Merchant's Hotel on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg, once a squalid and violent bar, will soon be torn down and transformed into an education centre.

JOHN WOODS/GLOBE AND MAIL

The Merchant's Hotel, a rowdy, beer-drenched bar that was a magnet for outlaws and the down-and-out, stood as a symbol of all that was wrong in Winnipeg's North End.

It was home to the city's busiest beer vendor, headquarters of the local drug trade and a de facto clubhouse for gangs that terrorized the streets, including the notorious Indian Posse.

But today it is the site of an ambitious redevelopment involving the University of Winnipeg that aims to transform Selkirk Avenue, the struggling commercial boulevard at the heart of the North End, into a hub for education. The aim is to engage the North End's young and predominantly indigenous population in their own neighbourhood to encourage them to see postsecondary education as part of their future.

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Jim Silver, chair of the University of Winnipeg's department of urban and inner-city studies, describes the $12.8-million project, funded mainly by the provincial government, as a beacon of hope. It will provide classrooms by day for the university's urban studies courses, and from 4:30 p.m. onward will host a Winnipeg branch of Pathways to Education, a successful tutoring and mentorship program for secondary students. It will also offer daycare, literacy classes, a community café and 30 units of affordable housing.

Prof. Silver said the project, called Merchant's Corner, addresses a key recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: to eliminate educational and employment gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

"We need to re-imagine how postsecondary education is done and we need to figure out how to enable indigenous people to succeed educationally," said Prof. Silver, who teaches the urban studies classes in a basement on Selkirk Avenue.

"We do things quite a bit differently than is the case on the main campus," he said. "The most important thing is location. We're here, and the result is we're accessible and people feel more comfortable with us."

For the moment, the old hotel still stands. Its grey metal doors have been locked since the provincial government bought out the previous owner in 2012. It will come down in the fall. On a tour of the building, Prof. Silver explains that the province had to pay a higher price than expected because the business was particularly lucrative. Inside, the hotel's wooden bar is covered in dust, and the old rooms, empty save for the small, white sinks in each corner and the hot-water radiators, still have the feel of a 1930s hotel. Right up until it closed, it was home to a dozen older men who paid monthly rents of about $200. It was a tough place. A sign on an exit warns, "Do not open this door unless the hotel is on FIRE or you want to be evicted."

The hotel was built in 1913 as a reasonably high-class establishment that catered to travelling salesmen, Prof. Silver said. But the neighbourhood began to change in the 1950s as the immigrants who had flocked to jobs around the massive rail yards moved to the suburbs. The businesses followed them, and Selkirk Avenue went into decline.

"Social capital and economic capital left the North End as people from the working class moved into the suburbs," said Rob Neufeld, director of the North End Community Renewal Corporation, a local coalition. "The North End is still the location of last resort because rents are lower."

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Rates of poverty are high and education levels are low. Prof. Silver said high school graduation rates are about 25 per cent, compared with more than 95 per cent in the suburbs. He hopes the redevelopment of the Merchant's can encourage a cultural shift by getting more students to complete high school and dream of university.

"Today, I think most people in the North End think of university as being not for people like us, it's for people on the other side of the tracks, it's for white people," Prof. Silver said. "What I hope is that more and more people will say, 'I'm going to university, it's in the neighbourhood, my neighbour went there, my brother went there,' and it will normalize the idea of postsecondary education."

Just under 10 per cent of indigenous Canadians in their prime working years, ages 25 to 64, have a university degree, compared with nearly 28 per cent in the rest of the population. Closing that gap is an important goal in Manitoba, where indigenous people will make up about 20 per cent of the population within 15 years.

Kevin Settee is a University of Winnipeg student of Cree and Ojibwa background. He grew up in Winnipeg's inner city and is involved with Merchant's Corner as a member of the university's student council. He said an education hub in the North End will also build bridges in the city, as about half the students who attend classes on Selkirk Avenue are expected to be from the university's mainly suburban, non-indigenous population. Mr. Settee said most of his current classmates had never walked down a North End street before attending the Selkirk Avenue campus.

"It opens the doors for students who have never been to the North End," Mr. Settee said. "When I was growing up, I saw the bar and the vendor as something negative, and when people left the Merch, they went back to their homes with that negativity. … With this new Merchant's Corner, people are going to be learning, getting an education, so they're going home with all these positive experiences. I see it as a place that's going to reproduce knowledge and positivity and understanding."

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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