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Small town of Innisfail, Alta., pulled into spotlight after Black Lives Matters protest cancelled, replanned

Woman holds a George Floyd poster at the Halifax rally in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement and victims of police brutality June 1. The small Alberta town of Innisfail has come into the spotlight after its protest was cancelled, then that decision was reversed.
Woman holds a George Floyd poster at the Halifax rally in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement and victims of police brutality June 1. The small Alberta town of Innisfail has come into the spotlight after its protest was cancelled, then that decision was reversed. Karla Renic / Global News

A central Alberta mayor says his town has been caught off guard by all the attention it’s received over an anti-racism event planned for the weekend.

The organizer of a Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday in Innisfail, Alta., initially called it off after an onslaught of online bigotry.

Now, after a wave of support, the event is back on, but as a community conversation about racism instead of a march or protest.

READ MORE: ‘Be uncomfortable’: Hundreds protest in Brooks for Black Lives Matter movement on rainy day

Innisfail Mayor Jim Romane says he has misgivings about large crowds gathering and spreading COVID-19 and hopes attendees follow public health guidelines.

He says the town of 8,000 stands against racism, but he’s never known it to be an issue during his 40 years there.

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Romane added that he didn’t mean to detract from the Black Lives Matter cause when he said in an interview with the Calgary Herald that “all lives matter.”

“I meant to say that everybody’s equal, so why all of a sudden do Black lives seem to be predominant over anybody else?

“I just put everybody on the same level playing field,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Click to play video 'Black Lives Matter Lethbridge organizer and race relations experts react to rally' Black Lives Matter Lethbridge organizer and race relations experts react to rally
Black Lives Matter Lethbridge organizer and race relations experts react to rally

A Black man in Minneapolis died last month after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. Anger over George Floyd’s death has spurred large protests around the world calling for an end to systemic racism and police brutality.

READ MORE: George Floyd death: Minneapolis to dismantle the police — what does that mean?

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Romane said he’s taken aback that his town has been swept up in the movement.

“You think it’s something out in the other part of the world somewhere and it doesn’t affect little old Innisfail here.

LISTEN BELOW: Innisfail Councillor Jean Barclay joins the Ryan Jespersen Show

The co-founders of Ubuntu – Mobilizing Central Alberta, an anti-racism group, said Romane is off base in suggesting racism isn’t an issue in Innisfail.

Dieulita Datus said she experiences racist microaggressions every day in central Alberta as a Black woman — whether it’s people touching her hair without permission or asking where she’s from.

“To speak on a subject like that and to categorically deny that racism exists as the mayor of a local town or city, I would really like to know where he got that information from,” she said.

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READ MORE: Organizers of Black Lives Matter protest in Lethbridge and race relations experts react to rally

Sadia Khan adds that it’s important for small towns like Innisfail to express solidarity with the wider Black Lives Matter movement, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“Instead of protest marches … we can have these conversations in a small gathering and really dismantle the systems that are in place that oppress people of colour,” she said.

Datus and Khan are not spearheading the event, but are supporting organizer Brittany Bovey. Bovey did not immediately respond to an interview request from The Canadian Press.