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Mayor Brian Bowman, celebrating his victory last month, says he wants to remind the younger indigenous community that “your dreams can come true in Winnipeg and anything is possible for anyone.”

JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Brian Bowman held back tears during his first speech as Winnipeg's new mayor this week.

He was only a few words in when, as the city's first indigenous mayor, he acknowledged that the assembled crowd was gathered on Treaty One territory and the traditional homeland of the Métis nation.

For Mr. Bowman, who is Métis, the weight of a historic moment was briefly overwhelming.

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"I didn't expect it to be as emotional as it was," Mr. Bowman said in an interview this week. "For me, given my family heritage, it was moving to just think I was sitting in the big chair, being the first indigenous mayor in the city of Winnipeg.

"It's hugely symbolic for the city and for the indigenous community and it was just an honour to be able to utter those words."

Mr. Bowman, 42, is a lawyer and former chamber of commerce chair who ran as a business-friendly conservative with progressive ideals. He started from nowhere in the polls and won an election in which the city's racial divide played an important role. He rarely mentioned his indigenous background during the campaign, but he's now being cast as a politician who can help bridge a racial gulf in what by some measures is Canada's most indigenous city.

Three-quarters of residents believe a deep racial divide separates aboriginals and non-abori- ginals in Winnipeg, according to a Probe Research poll taken during the campaign. Many now hope Mr. Bowman's election could mark a new beginning. But with his support coming mainly from the wealthy, primarily white south end, he has much work to do to reach out to the aboriginal population in the poorer downtown core and north end.

By his own admission, Mr. Bowman didn't discuss his background much in the campaign and most voters likely didn't know about it. He also disagrees with the notion of a divided city.

"There are many who feel there is a divide in Winnipeg. I don't share that view. I think there's reason to hope," he says. "In my campaign I focused on the opportunities a growing indigenous community presents for Winnipeg, especially in the areas of the arts, culture and tourism."

He didn't even know he was the city's first indigenous mayor until after the ballots were counted, he said. But Mr. Bowman has taken steps that signal a new approach.

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He ensured that Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony was blessed by an Ojibwa elder. And beforehand, at a private dinner, Mr. Bowman handed a gift of tobacco wrapped in red cloth to each member of council as a gesture of respect and goodwill.

Nearly 12 per cent of the city's population is indigenous, the largest proportion in any large Canadian city, according to the 2011 National Household Survey, nearly equally divided between First Nations people and Métis. And although there is a growing aboriginal middle class, significant differences remain with the non-indigenous population on measures of education, employment and income.

Race exploded into the campaign when an old social media post written by the wife of another candidate, Gord Steeves, which referred disparagingly to "drunken native guys" in the city's downtown, set off a period of civic soul-searching.

"This is a touchy subject in Winnipeg," said Scott MacKay, president of Probe Research. "We were surprised by the extent of the consensus. Most people agreed [there is a divide] and that it's a problem. … I'm glad it was quantified because I don't think it was ever done before; it was just something people walked around with in their heads."

Mr. Bowman grew up in Winnipeg. His father was a machinist at the Molson brewery, his mother a nurse, and his family lived a modest, suburban life, keeping rabbits and chickens in their large garden.

Mr. Bowman studied at the University of Manitoba, where he was a varsity swimmer, and graduated in law at the University of Toronto. He returned home, joined a large Winnipeg firm and volunteered with organizations in the inner city as well as the art gallery.

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He said his campaign began at 2 or 3 per cent in the polls, chasing the NDP machine that backed former MP Judy Wasylicia-Leis, the eventual runner-up. Having cut his teeth in the provincial Progressive Conservative party, Mr. Bowman ran as a fiscal conservative with a broad, progressive agenda that backed expanded transit, a homelessness strategy and a push to bring more residents into the city's downtown.

He said he has never formally applied for a Métis card, but others in his family have theirs and he has always identified as Métis.

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, said he hopes the mayor will formally complete his genealogy. Had he known of Mr. Bowman's identity sooner, he would have offered a full endorsement, he added.

"I've always been proud of my family heritage but I've wanted people to judge me for who I am. First and foremost I'm a Winnipegger," Mr. Bowman said.

"But I do think it's an opportunity to remind our growing, younger indigenous community that your dreams can come true in Winnipeg and anything is possible for anyone."

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