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Members say update to Calgary’s anti-racism action committee only a first step

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Calgary’s community development committee unanimously agreed to recommend updates to the anti-racism committee’s (ARAC) term of reference to council, but ARAC’s co-chair says this is only the first step to anti-racist action in the city.

The proposed changes aim to strengthen ARAC’s capacity to address systemic racism in the city more in-depth. This includes providing leadership to council on the development of a community-based anti-racism strategy and recommending actions to address structural racism in Calgary.

It also includes language that recognizes the historical systemic barriers against Indigenous, Black and racialized people in the City of Calgary’s programs and services while also recognizing the dynamic nature of anti-racist work in the city.

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But ARAC members say there is still a lot of work to be done in order to achieve the goal of an anti-racist city where Black, Indigenous and racialized people are treated equitably and with dignity.

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“As of today, there are white supremacists and white nationalist ideas on our streets.

“Calgarians such as myself, a racialized Brown woman, do not feel safe even sharing our vision for Calgary,” Sonia Aujla-Bhullar, ARAC’s co-chair, said in an emotional response on Thursday morning.

“It is completely heartbreaking to know that the majority of Calgarians do not see this as a priority.”

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An issue raised repeatedly during Thursday’s discussion is remuneration for ARAC members. Currently, all members work on a volunteer basis and their work has expanded beyond the committee’s monthly meetings. Volunteers often meet weekly, sometimes daily, to talk with community members or to make sure the work is flowing, according to Aujla-Bhullar.

Volunteers also put in a lot of emotional labour in their work and the work is unsustainable without some form of remuneration.

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“We see an inherent barrier to which boards are being remunerated because the work is seen as valued or more valuable… The anti-racism action committee is the first of its kind in terms of being an action committee.

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“That’s not to say that other boards are not doing the work, but it does raise the question of whose action or what action is considered valuable,” Aujla-Bhullar said.

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott also expressed concerns over continuity and whether the terms of reference will still be upheld 10 or 15 years later. He referenced the lack of Black women representation in the early days of the committee as an example and asked if there are more opportunities to address potential biases and blind spots in the future.

“There is absolutely an opportunity to do that. The terms of reference themselves are a journey to our understanding.

“This is the third iteration of the terms of reference and it speaks to the iterative nature of the work right now,” said Melanie Hulsker, director of Calgary neighbourhoods.

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City of Calgary’s anti-racism program team lead Lorelai Higgens said potential members are interviewed through a blind telephone conversation which gives committee members a chance to speak to every applicant.

“I believed this year that yielded a better recruitment process. We really had trouble selecting; we could have made an entirely new committee… There was such diversity and richness,” Higgins said.

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner and chair of the community development committee said anti-racism work is layered and needs to happen at the leadership level.

“I know some councillors have commented on values are often where the money is, so do our council directives speak to anti-racism work in our leaders and people?” Penner asked.

“I’m just leaving that as a thought as we look at our power dynamics and how that has changed where are voices heard and what are the ultimate decisions and why.”

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But Penner noted that anti-racism work in Calgary seems splintered and there are ways to form an umbrella for anti-racism and inclusivity work.

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“Where does the power lie? How do we work together more collaboratively and in a way that is not splintered?” she asked.

ARAC is a committee formed in October 2020 tasked with identifying systemic barriers to city programs and services, language barriers, ways to address structural racism on a community-wide level, as well as developing a community-based strategy. Committee members will have a two-year term or serve until the city adopts an anti-racism strategy.

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 and in Calgary.

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