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Calgary gives a voice to citizens to talk about systemic racism

Calgary has taken the first steps in realizing systemic racism exists.

City council heard from both an expert panel and the public on how racism exists in their lives – and how it’s systemic. There were also 107 pages of electronic submissions from the public.

The public consultation on systemic racism came by council decision after several Calgary Black Lives Matter protests that drew thousands. These rallies erupted after the death of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of Minnesota police.

“I think that today is an important step in the conversation that we are having together as human beings lucky enough to share this land,” said Mayor Nenshi.

“We can start from a place where we appreciate what we built, but also understand that we have much work to do together.”

He mentioned that the city itself has much work to do. One in three Calgarians is a person of colour. This population isn’t reflected in decision making, corridors of power, or how the city is designed for the future.

The city created principles that are universally applicable to allow changes in practices, community needs and perspectives.

The city wanted to hear stories from the public on their experiences with systemic racism in the city. They also created a panel of experts to also share their thoughts.

The expert panel consisted of Phil Fontaine, Victoria Bouvier, Teresa Woo-Paw, Nyall DaBreo and Francis Boakye.

Systemic racism and relation to the past

Questions arose about how we can pinpoint systemic racism.

Panelists said systems can be looked at as a structure. It’s composed of policies, regulations and rules that help certain people and hinders others. This is due to pre-existing notions, biases, perceptions, and assumptions that overwhelmingly disadvantage people of colour.

Former MLA Teresa Woo-Paw was one of the panelists at city council’s public hearing on systemic racism on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. OMAR SHERIF / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

“I’m currently sitting on a hiring panel with some Crown corporations, and I’m the only person of colour,” said Woo-Paw, a former Calgary MLA.

Racism reflected today is the outcome of the country’s racist past, said speakers. This is evident through legislation, policies, practices, and attitudes.

“We were criminalized because we did not fit into the European ideology of what constitutes a human,” said Bouvier, speaking of Indigenous and Métis resistance.

“These tropes still exist today and for all purposes of ensuring colonizers retain control and profit from the land they have taken.”

Residential schools, the Chinese head tax, slavery and restricted immigration are all aspects that impact racism in current times. Failure of school curriculums to address these issues in depth is also an act of racism, panelists said.

“If we link back historically, the societal mindset at the time the law is made, it’s good indicator of where the bias begins,” said DaBreo, a Calgary lawyer.

While there have been improvements, racial prejudices of the past are still deeply ingrained in today’s society.

“The laws and policies and agendas of the colonial states will always see me as a half breed,” said Bouvier.

Racism by the police

Many Calgarians have had negative experiences with the police due to their race. They want to push for the police to be more accountable and transparent.

DaBreo has experienced this first hand, along with those in his circle.

“I thought about 10 of my friends, Black professionals, never charged, never arrested, who all have had violent incidents with the police,” he said.

It begs the question why, but we know why, he said.

“It’s because we’re disproportionately and unfairly treated, regularly.”

Police work on all levels to overpower Indigenous people, said Bouvier.

“The police, whether federally, provincially, or municipally, are an integral proponent in the civilizing agenda which are used as a weapon against indigenous people.”

One mother in the submissions spoke about her son who she said had experienced violence at the hands of Calgary police and was unlawfully charged.

“Last year, my son of African ancestry was brutalized, choke held, kicked in the legs, rope tied,” she said. He has suffered a mental death because of it, he was trying to protect an Indigenous man.

Members of the public have called for action to deal with the police due to the racism they have experienced.

This includes defunding, strengthening rules and practices to make them accountable for their actions, or implementing better or more training to prevent harm in the first place.

Fontaine said that some RCMP only receive two hours of cultural awareness training before they’re assigned to an Indigenous community. This results in a limited view.

“What will prevail are your prejudices, your racist perspective, your sense of dominance over the people you’re going to work with,” he said.

Next steps to address Calgary racism

People had various concerns and negative experience with racism in the city. This includes but not limited to bullying and school responses, racism in the workplace including tokenism. They spoke of struggling no matter where they go due to the colour of their skin.

Submissions continued until 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and continue Wednesday. There were nearly 150 verbal submissions and they are still taking more.  

Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra speak to a couple of Calgarians while on a break during city council’s systemic racism public hearing. OMAR SHERIF / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said they’re here to listen and understand systemic racism and experiences of the public. Still, he said the City of Calgary has limited power on certain issues. They have no jurisdiction over the Calgary Board of Education and only an arm’s-length relationship with the police.

Mayor Nenshi hopes the conversations they have will allow them to move forward and determine changes.

“We work to go form a place that is diverse, that is inclusive, that strives to be not racist to a place that is anti-racist,” Mayor Nenshi said.

Fontaine said there are things being done well, such as improvements in education.

“It’s making a real difference in the lives of our people and our communities,” he said

“But we’re not doing enough, we have to do more.”