As Calgarians prepare to head to the polls to elect a new mayor and city council, advocates and outgoing councillors believe the future of the city’s anti-racism work should be considered at the ballot box.
Anti-racism work became a key focus for city council in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May 2020, which sparked demonstrations around the world, including in Calgary.
It prompted council to pass a motion that committed to address systemic racism in the city with six calls to action, including establishing an anti-racism committee that would be tasked with creating and developing an anti-racism strategy in the community.
Council also held three days of hearings to help guide work on anti-racism, as councillors heard from more than 100 Calgarians who shared their experiences with racism in the city and during interactions with the Calgary Police Service.
Adam Massiah, who is now a community relations adviser at the Ward 8 office in city hall, was one of those speakers. His words and experiences with police officers brought on a lengthy conversation with councillors about a path forward.
“For Black people, it was finally a time where it seemed like a time when people were listening,” Massiah told Global News.
“You were actually able to come forward and tell your stories and experiences dealing with racism in Calgary without being told that you’re being difficult, or being told you’re just using the race card.”
CPS also brought forward a commitment to address racism, and to reallocate funds from its operational budget to help create “an alternative crisis response model.”
Ward 8 councillor Evan Woolley brought forward a notice of motion to develop a framework to address service gaps in mental health and addictions response, as well as reallocate $20 million from the police budget over two years.
“Politics is the art of the possible,” Woolley told Global News. “I believe that we took a big step, but it’s not enough. This election, that conversation needs to happen.”
Ultimately, council’s budget deliberations ended with $8 million from city reserves being invested in examining alternative call response for mental health checks. Two-million-dollars were also allocated from the police budget to help with that work with community partners, with the door open for police to invest an additional $8 million into the effort.
Funding from the police budget was also allocated to anti-racism work within CPS.
In June, CPS and city officials announced $11.4 million in funding from the CPS budget reallocation and the Community Safety Investment Framework to be invested in 50 programs and initiatives, with $5.2 million of that money from CPS.
“If it wasn’t for that funding reallocated through the police budget, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of this work,” CPS acting superintendent Beverly Voros told Global News.
“It’s a tough way to come to that realization, but I’m very grateful we have that to apply to this work.”
According to CPS, that work includes a “transformational culture change” to address systemic racism, discrimination and marginalization as well as advance equity, diversity and inclusion.
“It’s not a sprint, this is a marathon. This is the first year into this anti-racism work,” said Massiah, who also sits on the CPS anti-racism action committee.
“A lot of people are trying to figure how it is we can begin to actually effectively address this issue and move forward in the appropriate manner.”
Meanwhile, the City of Calgary’s commitment includes a re-evaluation of internal policies and practices through an anti-racism lens, mandatory training on anti-racism as well as the consideration of issues of systemic racism in the community-based public safety task force.
According to Woolley, who is not running for re-election, the work underway will now be passed on to the upcoming mayor and council following the Oct. 18 election.
“The piece that is going to be important for the next council is to ensure the implementation and the execution of these plans, which will lead us to undoing systemic racism in the city, that they are accountable to those (plans) and they are resourced appropriately,” Woolley said.
“We used significant amounts of one-time funding to undertake that work, that will have to come at the next budget and be baked into the operating budget to ensure those resources are there to continue this incredibly important work.”
Massiah is urging voters to get informed on candidates’ platforms and to look into candidates that are including anti-racism efforts as part of their campaigns in the municipal race.
“It’s important to elect candidates that campaign on anti-racism, that campaign on destroying systemic racism, and campaign on equality and equity,” he said. “And have them sitting there representing groups of people that have generally not had that representation inside that room.”
More action on reconciliation
In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s 94 calls to action, the City of Calgary implemented White Goose Flying — its own strategy to implement the calls to action locally.
The report is named after Jack White Goose Flying, a 17-year-old from the Piikani Nation who died at Calgary’s only residential school in 1899.
Several actions have emerged through the report, including reconciliation training for staff and symbolic actions like more Indigenous artwork in city facilities and land acknowledgments.
According to Indigenous advocate and Ward 7 council candidate Marilyn North-Peigan, more action needs to be taken with guidance from the report.
“Canada was offering solutions through symbolism, and not action, and that’s exactly where the situation we are in is with White Goose Flying,” North-Peigan told Global News. “The change of the Reconciliation Bridge, yes, those are symbols, so we need to actually have true action.”
According to CPS, work continues to be underway to implement reconciliation in its police work.
A sacred space was constructed at Westwinds Campus, and Treaty 7 and Métis flags will also be flown outside the precinct.
CPS said there is currently a committee of 26 people working to implement changes within the service.
“It’s a huge undertaking. We’re taking it one step at a time. We have our entire diversity unit working on this,” Voros said.
“We’re working with the 1,400 members on our front line, informing them of reconciliation, telling them the meaning of the orange ribbon, telling them the meaning of the orange shirt, the meaning of (National Truth and Reconciliation Day) and how important it is.”
One example, according to Voros, is CPS examining its missing persons policy through an anti-racism and reconciliation lens to help educate investigators in their efforts.
Meanwhile, the memorial for Indigenous children, victims and survivors of Canada’s residential school system continues to grow outside city hall.
City council has expressed support in erecting a permanent memorial, but a search for a site has not yet begun.