DAMON JOHNSTON, a Canadian Ojibway Indian and native community activist here, has the look of a man on a mission.
More than six feet tall with eyes hidden behind green aviator glasses, Mr. Johnston's shoulder-length, jet-black hair brushes the collar of a western-style shirt. Along with wearing jeans and cream-colored cowboy boots, he carries a businessman's briefcase.
As he speaks, the noisy building renovation going on around him turns an old railroad station into the city's new aboriginal center. This will be the hub for a raft of community-based programs - generated by the Indians - to help poor and undereducated natives.
``There's been a renewal of energy,'' Johnston says of efforts by Manitoba natives to rebuild their community life on its own terms, rejecting decades of federal control. ``There's a sense that we've got the power now, and there's no turning back here in Manitoba and across Canada.''
Setting the standard
Others here echo that view as native communities and their leaders across Manitoba prepare for this province's weighty role as a national model of native self-government for Canada's 1 million aborigines: Indians, Inuit (Eskimo), and Metis (French-Indian descent).
``I think government's attitude is changing, and it is important for us to be ready to successfully take the next step,'' says Elijah Harper, an Indian member of Parliament. Mr. Harper gained fame in 1990 for his pivotal role in defeating the Meech Lake constitutional accord, a pact that recognized Quebec self-determination, but left native issues untouched.
The similar Charlottetown constitutional accords, which included a native self-government provision, failed in a 1992 national referendum.
But Indian leaders took it as a step forward. They argued that the government, if not the public, had recognized the right to native self-government and should proceed in handing over federal programs to Indians.
Now, under Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government, this is happening.
The first overt indication came in March during a session of Parliament following a question posed by Harper about native self-government. Ron Irwin, minister of the Department of Indian Affairs, surprised many by saying he planned the devolution of his department, beginning by handing over control of programs administered to Manitoba's 81,000 natives.
``[Manitoba] will be the lead province to dismantle Indian Affairs,'' said Mr. Irwin of his ministry. ``Hopefully, it will be a model for the rest of the country.''
Though today the Department of Indian Affairs has a staff of thousands and a $5 billion (Canadian; $US 3.6 billion) budget, Irwin plans to dismantle it a little at a time. For Manitoba natives, this has meant a flurry of recent meetings and a faster pace for a process already underway. Roughly 80 percent of federal programs in Manitoba are already administered by Indians, the government says.
But handing over control is not enough, Harper says. The elimination of bureaucracy must be accompanied by ``recognition that we've always had our own government.... Otherwise what we would be doing is simply to be administrators of our own misery.''
About 45,000 natives - 39 percent of Manitoba's aboriginal population - now live in Winnipeg, a city of 652,000. Just under half of all natives live in the inner city. Not quite 80 percent of those living in the inner city have incomes of less than C$20,000, according to a recent government report. One in five inner-city natives is between 15 and 24 years old.
Irrespective of federal promises to realize complete native self-government in Manitoba, native unemployment, alcoholism, and high school dropout rates have become so intolerable they have forced Winnipeg natives to begin tackling these problems on their own:
* Jim Bear, president of the recently formed Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, is attempting to develop the city's fragmented urban Indian population into a formidable political force. Elected by Winnipeg's urban native population in 1991, the council presents a united front on behalf of constituents that include Ojibway, Cree, Dene, Sioux, Dakota, and Metis.
* A long-term project the council has embraced involves bringing urban Winnipeg natives together to magnify their economic impact on the city. Indians sometimes jokingly call Winnipeg Canada's largest Indian reserve. But Mr. Bear wants to cement that idea by building a 400-acre ``Reservation Winnipeg'' that would include a job-creating sports-stadium, hotel, and gambling megaplex.
* Anishinabe Oway-ishii is a four-year-old, community-based, pre-employment training program that is improving the lives of 25 native children who have been on the streets with little education or work experience. This is only one of a half-dozen such initiatives that have emerged in the past few years.
* Children of the Earth High School, formed in 1991 with 240 students, began as an initiative by urban natives outraged over intolerably high dropout rates among native high school youth.
Teaching native culture
Children of the Earth is Manitoba's only public school with a curriculum geared to teach native languages and culture - along with the basics required of all public schools. It is also the largest of eight such ``cultural survival schools'' in Canada.
The school, in its first two years, graduated more native children than a much larger high school with the same number of native kids graduated in five years, according to principal Mary Courchene.
Manitoba's native renaissance is spreading across Canada, Harper says, part of a long-held desire by many natives to rediscover their heritage and take charge of their own destinies.
``There is a spiritual awakening about who we are, and we are seeing this across the country among elders and youth,'' Harper says.
``We are all beginning to learn about our culture and history. I expect this to grow,'' he says. * Tomorrow: How one of Manitoba's largest Indian reserves revived its own system of government.