A Calgary city council committee held a public hearing Tuesday to give people the opportunity to speak about systemic racism.
The meeting comes as a result of the anti-police violence and anti-racism demonstrations in the city in June, which involved thousands of people.
After the rallies, council voted unanimously to support an anti-racism motion with six calls to action, one of which was holding a public hearing on systemic racism.
“This is step one to respond to what the protestors throughout the world and specifically the protestors here in Calgary are protesting,” said Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, who is chair of the Committee on Community and Protective Services.
Speaking to Global News Morning Calgary on Tuesday, Carra explained what the meeting will look like, saying it will start at 9:30 a.m. with a ceremony led by a Blackfoot elder.
“We’re going to have a live smudge in the council chambers,” he explained. “I will be joined in council chambers by a co-chair – Dr. Malinda Smith — and that’s sort of an unprecedented situation, but we certainly wanted to create a more welcoming environment.”
Carra explained that Smith will be critiquing how the city has been doing in terms of the action councillors have taken against racism, and where they are on their journey.
“This is an opportunity to move from being generally not racist to actively anti-racist, and that’s really what this pivot is about.”
“Then we have an expert panel of five amazing people brought in from the community who have expertise both in lived experience and academic experience of systemic racism. The morning will be dedicated to that panel discussion. Then, at 1 p.m., after the lunch break today, we open it up to public submissions.”
Carra said over 150 people signed up to speak, and the meeting is expected to continue until 9:30 p.m.
“Listening and learning is one thing, pivoting to action is really what’s critical here,” Carra said. “We’re establishing an anti-racist task force, but we’re also establishing a body of work based on what we hear today to actually try to redress systemic racism and institutional racism in everything we do, and also work with members of the community.”
Speaking to Global News, Iman Bukhari from the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation said they feel the entire consultation has been “rushed.”
When asked about the criticism on Tuesday, Carra said he felt that was “to a certain extent … A very fair criticism.”
“We’re trying to strike a number of balances here. I always feel like when government is getting accused of moving too quickly – because we grind so slowly – that in some ways, we’re probably doing things right.”
“We want to make sure that the momentum of what happened on the streets translates to the halls of government, and translates in a meaningful way.”
Bukhari also voiced concerns about a five-minute time limit put in place for speakers, saying she didn’t know how people could tell their story of system racism in five minutes.
Carra said they won’t be “overly strict” with the time limit but they do have a lot of submissions to get through. He said they won’t cut people off in the middle of sharing “real and emotional trauma.”
‘Turn words into action’
Sajjad Fazel provided a written submission to the committee in advance of the meeting.
“It is important to understand first and foremost that systemic racism exists within our society and in Calgary,” Fazel said.
“However, there are many within our community who deny it, perhaps because they’re privileged and have not experienced it or are deliberately ignoring it for fear of their own insecurities. In order to address systemic racism, we first have to recognize that it exists.”
Fazel ended by calling council to take action on racism.
“The talking point shouldn’t be whether any action will be taken but rather when will action be taken. Anti-racism has been given a lot of lip service in the past month. It’s time for city councillors and Calgarians alike to turn words into action,” Fazel said.
Stephanie Solomon wrote that she has lived in Calgary most of her life, and said that generally, Calgary is a safe place to live but there is still a problem when it comes to systemic racism.
“The reality is some of the people enacting racist acts do not know what racism is, even to spot it. When they are called on it, they are shocked and reply, ‘That is not what I meant,’ or ‘I don’t mean you,'” she said.
“This atmosphere makes racism harder to confront, and I have often had to decide what battles do I have to engage in, especially because of the colour of my skin tagging me as an angry Black woman.”
Recent Calgary Board of Education high school graduate Angie Chen addressed the panel and councillors over the phone Tuesday, sharing her experience as a Chinese student student in the public school system.
“There was a point in time where there was almost not a single day where I wasn’t made fun of because of my race,” the Calgary-born student said, adding that when she told her teachers, nothing would change.
“At a very young age, I learned to hate myself,” Chen said.
She criticized the public school curriculum, which is determined by the provincial government, saying nowhere in the social studies literature does it direct teachers to explicitly talk about race and racism.
“Teachers need to be talking about race and racism at a very young age because if I got bullied in Grade 2 for being Asian, kids younger can and should be learning about race and racism,” she said.
Chen also called on the CBE to make a commitment to hire more teachers of colour.
Speaking as part of the public testimonials, a woman identified as Rachel who said she worked for the Calgary Parking Authority shared her experience with racism in her workplace.
“The experiences leave me powerless and more importantly, I’m not always supported by my colleagues,” she said.
“I’m typically excluded from discussions, from decision making and opportunity. This is difficult to address at a workplace, because people get defensive, and then I’m characterized as… an angry Black woman or — my favourite — aggressive.”
Rachel said it’s important the city make it mandatory that staff at all levels have training on anti-racism, unconscious bias and allyship, adding that human resources staff need more education on how to help employees dealing with racism.
“When I go to HR and speak to them about what I’m feeling and what I’m dealing with in the office, a lot of them want me to not talk about it, not discuss it and they do not want to help me through the process,” she said.
The meeting Tuesday began with a presentation from a panel made of diverse community members.
“They’ll discuss race theory and structural and institutional racism and set the stage for the day as well as dig into each of their communities’ lived experiences. They’ll also weigh in on actions to take on striking the best path forward,” Carra said, noting the panel includes representatives from Indigenous, Metis, Black and Chinese communities.
Besides the public hearing, the motion passed at council last month contained recommendations to re-evaluate city policies and procedures with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and for the community-based Public Safety Task Force to consider issues of systemic racism and discrimination in its work.
This fall, council said it will create an anti-racism action committee, which will provide advice to council and administration on how to develop and advance an anti-racism strategy.