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A memorial to Tina Fontaine sits on the Alexander Docks in August along the Red River in Winnipeg.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

The mayor of Manitoba's capital tearfully promised Thursday to fight racism and intolerance after his city was branded Canada's most racist by a national magazine.

Brian Bowman stood surrounded by dozens of aboriginal and community leaders and admitted that Winnipeg has a problem with racism. The city's first Métis mayor broke down in tears as he talked about passing on his heritage to his young children.

"My wife is Ukrainian heritage. My family is Métis," he said as he choked back tears. "I want my boys to be as proud of both of those family lines."

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Macleans magazine published a cover story that gave Winnipeg the dubious distinction. It cited the huge gap between aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people, as well as the recent high-profile death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was found in August wrapped in plastic in the Red River.

It also comes shortly after an inquest report into the death of Brian Sinclair, an aboriginal double-amputee who died during a 34-hour wait for care in a city hospital's emergency room in 2008. Some staff testified that they assumed he was drunk – "sleeping it off" – or homeless.

The reaction to the article from city hall was swift. The police chief, the provincial treaty commissioner, chiefs and community leaders assembled – not to refute the article – but to promise to do something about the issue it highlighted.

"We do have racism in Winnipeg. … You can't run away from facts," Bowman said after a closed traditional smudging ceremony. "Ignorance, hatred, intolerance, racism exists everywhere.

"Winnipeg has a responsibility right now to turn this ship around and change the way we all relate."

Bowman said that means having an open dialogue with aboriginal leaders before taking concrete action, which he said is coming.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said keeping the lines of communication open is key. But he warned that combatting racism is a huge challenge.

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"I guarantee you that, right now, somebody is having a racist experience in a restaurant or on the streets in Winnipeg somewhere. I'm not here to pacify that or to say that it's okay," Nepinak said.

"There are people who are willfully blind, willfully ignorant to the reality of indigenous people in this society. But we will challenge them."

Ovide Mercredi, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he has experienced racism, but has not let it embitter him. There are many within the aboriginal community with the energy to fight prejudice and ensure there is "zero tolerance" for racism, he said.

"I have a right to be different. If we as a society make that a basic principle – that all human beings have a right to be different – we'd go a long way to solving the intolerance that many people experience," Mercredi said. "Instead of putting each other down, we should be trying to lift each other up."

Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis, who is black, said he doesn't believe Winnipeg is the only city grappling with racism. Racism exists across Canada and is part of the "human condition," he suggested.

"We need to have a difficult conversation in our city respective of race," Clunis said. "I think you are seeing who is starting that conversation today."

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