Winnipeg’s new Indigenous relations manager determined to ‘build a staircase’ for his people

Cecil Sveinson made it clear to the city brass: His view of the job was toppling systems, building relationships and community engagement.

“It appears that’s what they wanted,” Sveinson said.

Sveinson’s partner, Melissa, was the one to point out the job description for the manager of the City of Winnipeg’s Indigenous relations division. 

“She’s reading it off — every bullet point — and I’m going, ‘I could do that, I could do that, I could do that,’ and she says, ‘I know you could do that. It’s like they wrote this for you,'” Sveinson said during an interview overlooking the lodge at Nestowaya, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet — also called The Forks.

Sveinson was hired. 

Barely weeks into the job, the Anishinaabe man, whose home community is Poplar River First Nation, was one of millions of Indigenous people and Canadians to see, read and hear the news of the discovery of 215 bodies of children buried at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. 

While it came as no surprise to Sveinson and many Indigenous people, the discovery did focus many eyes on the true impact of residential schools and generations of colonization. 

Sveinson says many settler Canadians would have heard the testimonies of survivors of residential schools, but says those are adults who survived the atrocities. 

Kamloops has opened some eyes. 

“These are the bodies of babies, these are the bodies of children, and that is what effecting change is,” Sveinson said. “And that is what I tell everyone: It is horrible. If we try to do what’s best, if we try to do the right thing, then what they went through will be for something.” 

Sveinson says he experienced systemic racism as a young police officer, but also had to deal with personal acts of racism throughout his career. (Cecil Sveinson/Submitted)

Knowing what happened didn’t mean Sveinson didn’t also need some time to process the news. It’s part of healing that the former police officer knows well from his journey.

“First you have to be healed yourself, then you have to work on your family,” Sveinson said. “Then, when you feel that’s good, you can work on your community. And then, when you feel that’s good, you work on your nation.”

Sveinson says he’s a “community guy,” pointing to figures such as Senator Murray Sinclair and children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock as the “nation people.”

Spiritual and full of pride for his culture and his people, Sveinson describes himself as a knowledge keeper at this stage in his journey, not an elder. 

Everything happens for a reason 

As the manager of the Indigenous relations division, Sveinson and a staff of nine are responsible for reworking the city’s human resource practices to make them more inclusive, help managers understand the culture and practices of Indigenous people, and build bridges between the city and the community. 

This was not the start of his career at the city, but another chapter.

Sveinson went through the Winnipeg Police Service academy at an historic moment in the city’s time in the early 1990s.

The conclusions of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry insisted on the need for Indigenous officers on the force and Sveinson was in the original class that sought address that imbalance.

One of his first postings was to the neighbourhood he grew up in — Elmwood. The area was seeing new generations of Indigenous gangs on the rise, creating an unusual work environment for Sveinson.

“[The] little brothers and nephews of the guys I grew up with were gang members that I was dealing with professionally. That was surprising — a bizarre situation really, some of them even calling me uncle [a term of respect in Indigenous culture]!”

Racism, both systemic and personal

Along the way, Sveinson saw systemic racism and then more overt — something he calls personal racism.

His very first night on the street a senior officer he was partnered with “spot checked” a young Indigenous man wearing a hood. When Sveinson asked his partner what the legal justification was for stopping the boy, the answer was swift.

“He says to me, he’s an ‘F-ing’ Indian kid in a back lane in the middle of the night,'” Sveinson recalled.

A stint in the traffic division and collision investigations led to training other officers at the police academy, which was followed by teaching officers about Indigenous culture and practices —  from sweat lodges and ceremonies to medicine pouches and smudging. 

Sveinson’s ability to impart that knowledge led to helping lead national programs and, ultimately as the Aboriginal liaison officer with the WPS and also some time with Manitoba’s independent investigation unit (IIU).

In keeping with the police practice of changing jobs every few years, Sveinson returned to the streets, working in the downtown area for his last five years. He retired as a patrol sergeant  In 2017 after 25 years on the job. 

A month into his retirement he was pulled in another direction, this time working with young people for South East Child and Family Services.

Building a staircase

Now, Sveinson has started a new chapter as the manager of the City of Winnipeg’s Indigenous relations division. 

Was he destined to be in this role?

“I definitely feel, you know, not a man of destiny — that sounds a little self-serving. But I definitely feel that the creator has put me right where I’m supposed to be. In our way we say that when you experience deja vu, that’s a way of creator telling you’re where you’re supposed to be,” Sveinson said. 

His mission is multi-layered: building relationships between communities of residents and peeling back layers of systemic racism that pervade the City of Winnipeg as an organization.

Sveinson says one of his goals is to provide more spaces for Indigenous youth to partake in ceremonies and learn their culture. ‘What they’re telling us is they’re longing for that connection to the earth, that land-based healing and learning that their ancestors had.’ (John Einarson/CBC)

When asked how that exists as a reality at the city, Sveinson talks about the hiring process and how it stifles diversity —right up to the most senior levels.

Much of the human resource process, he says, is based on generations of North American settler values that don’t reflect the cultural reality of many groups in society.  A mainstream value, for example,  that conflict is important and should be tackled head on.

Even measuring the firmness of a handshake — “the good, firm, double-pump handshake and release that denotes confidence” — is cultural, Sveinson says.

“Yet many indigenous folks, some of the strongest Indigenous men I’ve ever met in my life, offer a very soft handshake because that’s a sign of respect.” 

Sveinson says his first impression of both the political leadership and senior management of the city is that they are ready and open for change. It will be his job to help guide that effort.

“It’s my job, you know, to build a staircase, Sveinson said. “Now that I’ve climbed the ladder of success, it’s my job as a leader to build a staircase — you know, maybe an escalator or an elevator — for others to follow.”

As Sveinson looks around the city, he sees a First Nation-led development of the Kapyong Barracks land, the Manitoba Metis Federation moving to the corner of Portage and Main and changing the name of Bishop Grandin Blvd. 

It’s an historic and exciting time,  Sveinson believes. 

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