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Black Lives Matter: A look at anti-racism work in Calgary following 2020 movement

Click to play video: 'Examining change following Calgary’s BLM movement'
Examining change following Calgary’s BLM movement
WATCH: It’s been nearly four years since thousands of Black Lives Matter demonstrators filled Calgary streets following the death of George Floyd. Tracy Nagai takes a look back at some of the changes that were sparked by rallies and the work still underway by the City of Calgary and the Calgary Police Service (CPS). – Feb 2, 2024

Shuana Porter remembers being on the fence initially when people started coming to her in 2020 asking her to organize and lead demonstrations in Calgary.

“When someone first messaged me and said ‘Shu, you should start a protest and you should be the one that leads the protest’ the first question I asked was ‘Why?’,” Porter recalled.  “I was a little skeptical at first because I was like “What is that going to do?”

But after multiple requests to get involved, including several from young, Black women, and some introspection, Porter said the answer became clearer to her.

“You can either be on the right side of history or on the wrong side and you become on the wrong side by doing nothing, by saying nothing and not participating.”

Throughout the summer of 2020, several Black Lives Matter demonstrations were held in Calgary, with thousands of supporters speaking out about systemic racism in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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The rallies in Calgary were part of a larger movement with demonstrations happening in cities around the world.

“I always refer to it as a civil rights movement and as social justice uproar,” Porter said. “It was really a community of people globally, not just in Calgary, not just in Canada that came together in a unified voice.”

Following the rallies in Calgary more than 70, 000 Calgarians signed an online petition calling for a public hearing on systemic racism.

In July 2020, the hearing took place over three days and in October the Anti-Racism Action Committee was established to oversee the development of a community-based anti-racism strategy.

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Porter initially volunteered by chairing the committee before taking a job with the Calgary Police Service, something she never had thought was possible.

“It’s one thing to be a part of the conversation from an external point of view,” she said. “But then to be at the table? (It’s my) dream job, dream life.”

Porter is now an anti-racism strategic advisor in the Calgary Police Service’s (CPS) racial equity office and said she can see firsthand the work being done.

“To see the Calgary Police Service staying true and committed to their service, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

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That commitment includes in-service training, working with the CPS professional standards section and taking a closer look at de-escalation and use of force.  Porter is also working to bridge communication between people in the community and police.

“It took a lot of work to build these systems that we’re addressing,” she said. “It’s going to take just as much work, if not more, to dismantle them and correct them.”

Porter adds that over the last four years of working closely with, and then joining CPS, some of her own perceptions have shifted.

“I think it has humanized officers more for me just from my experience,” she said. “Now you’re seeing people as husbands, fathers and wives and just professionals that want to serve.”

CPS  is also hosting two internal events for employees this month in order to bring education and awareness to the lived experience of Black communities across Calgary, and also their history in Alberta and across the country.

CPS is not the only organization taking a closer look at itself in the wake of the 2020 demonstrations.

At the City of Calgary, anti-racism work is also underway.

“When you want to be anti-racist or an anti-racist organization, you focus on actions. Something needs to change,” said Linda Kongnetiman, the managing lead of the City of Calgary’s anti-racism program. “Policies should include the voices of the people.”

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Kongnetiman spent two decades working in health care before taking the role with the city in 2021.

“I really wanted to be a part of this because I saw that it matters for people. It was important for people to come, be part of a city and feel like they belong.”

Last spring, council approved the 2023-2027 anti-racism strategic plan which focuses on anti-racism training and education, creating racially-equitable programs and services, and hiring diverse leaders.

“We’re in the process of making sure that the plan doesn’t become dust, that the plan doesn’t stay on a website,” she said.

In terms of action, Kongnetiman points to the program’s recent victories, including mandatory anti-racism training and education for city councillors and the City of Calgary internal app, Name Drop, which allows people to hear the correct pronunciation of their colleagues’ names.

“Many people have been changing their names because it’s difficult to pronounce, or changing their names so they can get an interview… we have eliminated that and that is part of the work of the strategic plan.”

Kongnetiman said she is now looking forward to the city’s first Racial Justice Conference scheduled to be held on March 18 and 19.

“Participants can walk away with tangible tools and skills in order to make changes and to support the people we’re working with, ” she explained. “The urgency that was created in Calgary in 2020, we’re making sure that we’re following through with it.”

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