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Calgary city committee formally recognizes systemic racism exists in city

In a unanimous vote, a City of Calgary committee acknowledged that systemic racism exists in the community, government, policing and other city institutions.

It comes after three days of public consultation where 61 written submissions were put into the public record. Hundreds of people stepped forward in committee to share their personal stories of experiencing systemic racism.

Sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, and thousands of Calgarians who participated in rallies, the consultations were opened as the City realized systemic racism needs to be addressed at home.

“What is astonishing about the testimonies we’ve heard thus far is how deep and pervasive the experiences are. How intergenerational they are,” said panel co-chair Dr. Malinda Smith.

“We cannot say it’s just individual or interpersonal. What we are hearing – what we are getting is a master class in systemic racism.”

Education and the arts

Wunmi Idowu said she was severely bullied in school for being African and felt like she didn’t belong.

“I felt like I was in someone else’s house. Like I’m intruding,” she said.

She said African-Canadian history is absent in the curriculum including slave trade, grand railways, and even contributions that Black Canadians have made in a variety of fields including arts and science.

As a dancer, she started performing her school’s culture days celebration and took that as an opportunity to educate her peers using African dance music and theatre. People became interested and it allowed her to share her knowledge because they were used to perceiving Africa negatively.

“The colourful intricate performances intrigued to music excited and intrigued audiences,” she said.

She opened her own dance academy in 2006 called Woezo Africa. It’s dedicated to bringing African culture to the masses and offers a range of services and educational community outreach program.

Pamela Tzeng is an artist and producer tackling anti-racism training and curriculum in schools and equitable reallocation of funds to communities who need them.

She said as an artist, she’s had the fortune to work in different schools for educational performances. What she finds so frustrating is that the communities with the most population of newcomers have greater economic disparity.

“They cannot afford to have these vital access points to learning through creativity and other resources,” she said.

She said although she graduated high school 16 years ago, she’s hearing the same stories she experienced from kids today.

“It’s so disheartening to know that nothing has changed. K to 12 schooling is the environment where we internalize racism towards ourselves and towards others,” she said.

“Children deserve to have anti-racism knowledge and guidance in their education.”

Emphasis on police; holding council accountable

There were continued talks as many submissions once again discussed defunding the police.

They suggested giving the money to various aspects of the city such as reallocating it to youth programs, arts, housing, first responders and other areas.

One woman in the submissions, a lawyer, said policing is an institution and the systemic racism embedded within it has directly harmed marginalized people.

Improving training or diversity initiatives will not transform the police into an entity that is not oppressive.

“Systems adapt and racism is pervasive,” she said.

She has been involved in anti-racism education in the legal profession. While education and awareness are necessary steps, they aren’t the end.

The purpose of being educated on systemic racism is to enable them to make informed decisions that actively combat racism in all its forms.

“You, as elected representatives, have the power to take decisive action against systemic racism. Not all of us do. Please take this opportunity seriously.”

Many people reminded city council that while they don’t have full jurisdiction, they do have power over the budget, which is the root of many problems.

City’s next steps

In addition to acknowledging the systemic racism in Calgary, city councillors also approved the terms of reference for an Anti-Racism Action Committee.

The recognition of systemic racism also came with a joint statement from several elements of the Calgary police. The Calgary Police Service, the Calgary Police Association, the Calgary Police Commission and the Senior Officers Assocation issued the statement Thursday evening.

“We acknowledge that systemic racism exists in all our institutions and we are committed to taking action,” the statement read.

“Every citizen should feel safe and every citizen should be able to trust that police will treat them fairly. Building this trust requires constant, consistent and intentional work.”

The groups realize they need to do more work with different communities in Calgary. They’ve invited Dr. Smith, co-chair of the panel, to continue working with them.

“It is our goal to continue meaningful engagement and make real changes toward ending systemic racism,” the statement read.

All of the committee recommendations will require approval at a full meeting of council.