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Calgary public hearing process getting an update with inclusivity and accessibility in mind

Dennis Ram said when he spoke before council at a public, he did so on behalf of others who were reluctant due to fear.

Public hearings are when concerned citizens are supposed to come out and speak up about the issues they care about. While that is intimidating enough, the current system in place for letting people speak is less than adequate, some say.

This worry has prompted the city to start public engagement to hear people’s thoughts on why the public hearing process for city council .

The problem was originally brought up in a motion to city council by councillor Jyoti Gondek. The motion was adopted with the goal of developing a more user-friendly public hearing process. Engagement began on June 15 and is happening until July 9.

Later this year, the data and suggestions will be presented to council. The report will outline what needs to be done to change the public hearing system. Anti-racism, inclusivity, equity, and diversity formed the basis for the original motion.

Last summer, the city held a meeting of the Standing Policy Committee which discussed Calgary’s commitment to anti-Racism.

That July 7 meeting saw many people speak up about anti-racism in Calgary. At the meeting, glaring flaws in the system were revealed.

Denis Ram spoke that day. Ram wasn’t just speaking for himself. It was for a group of people who had all experienced systemic racism but couldn’t voice their concerns and tell their stories.

“When I gave my speech to city council on anti-racism, I shared about five or six stories. Those stories were from me, my friends, my family, and members of the community. Specifically, because they were afraid to speak in front of city council on their own,” Ram said.

Issues to be addressed

The inadequacies revealed by events like that prompted the city administration to start the engagement process. The city wants to hear what people believe should be fixed for the public hearing process to work as intended.

After his experience, Ram saw several issues that he believes should be addressed. One glaring issue is related to ESL. Many speakers who want to come forward during public hearings can’t, or are afraid to, due to language barriers.

Those barriers are more troubling when you have city councillors who may ask direct questions and wanting detailed information on the problem brought forward.

“It is a daunting task to step up in front of council and be asked direct questions about the truth of your story and your intentions. People are afraid to bring up issues of anti-racism because there is a backlash when they speak up about these issues. We see it time and time again,” Ram said.

A complaint system similar to Ram’s clear justice app for police complaints may also be a path forward for those with a lack of knowledge about English.

Advocates for speakers

Ram also suggests the problem could be alleviated by having an advocate or representative take in requests and present them to council. This would ensure voices are heard without having the pressure of speaking in front of an authority. It would also solve the problem of location. People who live far away or don’t have time to present to council can pass their issue through a third party.

“That could be a good way to increase the number of respondents,” Ram said.

City of Calgary Clerk Kate Martin said that the city has recognized these issues, with a particular emphasis being placed on call in public hearings. While not solving the issue of language barriers and anxiety over presenting it does allow for more people to participate, without sacrificing their time.

A dial-in system was created so citizens could participate during COVID-19, Martin said. But they want to hear more about what they can do to make the system easier to access.

“I would say we are looking forward to the public engagement concluding so we can start analyzing the data gathered,” Martin said.

Problems beyond the system in place

While all of these changes could help the process, Ram says there are deeper issues in the system. Often problems lie with the councillors who are present during these hearings.

“At the anti-racism hearings, there were a few city councillors asking questions that were demeaning, condescending, and rude. Some councillors genuinely don’t understand what the definition of systemic racism is,” Ram said.

“I didn’t realize we were debating city councillors on systemic racism. When it feels more like a debate, that will dissuade people from speaking up.”

That ingrained misunderstanding involves education, which may be an issue the public engagement process can’t fix, he said.