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Indigenous Awareness Week panel calls for change against systemic racism

By Danise Simpelo, March 29 2021—

From March 15 –19, Indigenous Awareness Week took place online with a series of webinars and online events. This week concluded with an online webinar hosted by the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the University of Calgary to address the urgency of eliminating systemic racism in Calgary. This panel, titled “Collaborate for Change: Eliminating Systemic Racism in Calgary” reflected on the City of Calgary’s hearing in response to systemic racism that occurred a year ago. 

The moderators and hosts, Dr. Malinda S. Smith and Gian-Carlo Carra created an open discussion with UCalgary Alumni speakers such as Theresa Woo-Paw, Vicki Bouvier and Nyail DaBreo, with an appearance by Commissioner Heather Campbell with the Calgary Police Commission. These distinguished speakers took a chance to address the issues of systemic racism in Calgary such as the roots of racism, police involvement and the experiences of minority groups such as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). 

The United Nations declared March 21 as the International Day of Elimination of Racial Discrimination. With the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred last year and the recent anti-Asian racism attacks in Canada and the United States, racism continues to be a heavy topic of conversation. 

“There were heated and challenging conversations but they were also desperately needed,” said Smith.

Carra opened the floor by going over what occurred at the City of Calgary’s series of hearings on systemic racism and how the city plans to address the current challenges its people are facing and how to directly solve them. The pledge to start working towards an anti-racist stance came from acknowledging that the BIPOC community had a very different relationship with the city and its institutions in comparison to the white majority. 

Carra divided people into three categories that explained where people fit in with the discussion of racism in the city — those who understand, those who do not understand and those who understand and are committed to not doing anything about it. He says that actions such as tiki torches put in front of city hall during freedom marches, the response due to the pandemic being co-opted by white supremacists and the recent event of the confederate flag being hoisted up in the Field of Honour in Union Cemetery are just a few examples of racist events occurring in Calgary.

“I certainly did not have the triggering aspects of lived experiences to deal with them. Myself and all of council was deeply moved — we all walked away understanding that our BIPOC neighbors have a much different relationship with our core institutions than our white majority in the city,” Carra said.

In response, the city has set up institutional ground-work such as establishing an anti-racism committee, working with the Calgary Police Services (CPS) who acknowledged the systemic racism in their line of work, established an activist police commission and established a community investment safety framework that focused on creating an environment for spending money on alternative service delivery. In total, with contributions from the city and the CPS, there is a $16 million fund for the community safety framework. The current work on the anti-racism committee will begin by weighing in on building an equitable framework for physical city buildings and neighborhood development on March 22. 

“What we’ve done as a city is set up institutional groundwork to make institutional change,” said Carra.

Bouvier reflected on how the institutional framework of practices such as perceptions of togetherness, language and education stemmed from colonialism. She mentions the Doctrine of Discovery (DOD) which were historical papal decrees that provided a moral and legal justification for European colonization. The DOD presents the ways in which our beliefs, institutions and structures are influenced by settler colonialism.

“Canada and its origins are inherently racist because it brought over church laws from the Vatican who were to deem the people that were originally here unhuman,” Bouvier said.

Bouvier explains how this mode of colonialism is distinct because the removal of people from the land allows for Canadians to have Canadian sovereignty. For her, this included European laws and legalities regarding the land and the imposed perception of whiteness and Christianity. She explains how due to this imposition, these beliefs have been ingrained in people to become true. 

Woo-Paw brought forward the ways in which the city needs to embed principles and practices of accountability. She proposes taking an integrated approach with organizations and their overall strategic business plan to ensure that institutions are free of racism. Using these practices of accountability will allow for the creation of race-based data to review in our leadership and institutions, according to Woo-Paw. 

“We heard loud and clear the harm and the hurt of racism perpetuated by our systems on our citizens, our youth and our students. We were reminded of the deeply entrenched attitudes, biases and power structures and pervasiveness of racism in our public system,” said Woo-Paw.

Following her suggestions, Woo-Paw continued the dialogue by highlighting the issue beyond awareness. She points to how acknowledgments and equity, diversity and inclusion require sustained support as it begins to dissipate even with educated people involved. 

DaBreo recognized the CPS for their gesture of acknowledging their issue with system racism. When asked by Carra how society can hold the CPS accountable, he responded with accountability, transparency, leadership and trusting the experience of community members. DaBreo explained that there were various ways of dealing with accountability and transparency and provided an example through legislation such as the Police Act. He outlined how the current Police Act is inadequate, highly suggesting that it become changed instead of modified.

“I feel it’s a very inadequate piece of legislation — it needs to go as far as the amended version, that’s how much change needs to occur,” DaBreo said.

He continued speaking on transparency with examples in leadership and how a simple act such as the Chief of CPS speaking out on circulating videos of targeted attacks and stating what is unethical will provide courage and understanding for police to stand up against it.

“The on-going leadership about what’s right and wrong in policing does help — it’s about when Indigenous, Black or Asian people are targeted through violence — it’s calling it out,” said DaBreo.

In his closing statement, DaBreo emphasized the demonstration of proper discretion of taking advocacy and challenging the status quo. 

“It’s not just a discussion of if you support the blue or not, it’s a discussion of what is not acceptable in modern society,” DaBreo said.

Campbell took the floor to incorporate Bouvier and Woo-Paw’s comments in what she hopes to see in Calgary and Alberta policing. In her position as a member of the Police Commission, she acknowledged the opportunity to leverage the leadership of the commission that oversights the CPS.  

“We are at a place if you come with an understanding that policing in North America has its roots in racism — that is the key. Understanding the need to reform and refresh our governing legislation to support and address so many citizens that have been feeling left unsafe and unserved,”  said Campbell.

Campbell says that on the commission, there are 5 out of 12 individuals who are people of colour or Indigenous, and 8 out of those 12 are women. She points out how the province does not talk a lot about women and how the different dialogues and conversations about issues of justice needs to begin with conversations that lead to solutions.

“We are looking for the opportunity to embed the principles of anti-racism, equity, inclusion and diversity in a modernized and revised Police Act — I’m personally looking for a complete redo because it’s required and it’s due,” Campbell said.

You can watch the webinar hosted by Dr. Malinda Smith and Gian-Carlo Carra here. For more webinars from the EDI office surrounding anti-racism, click here. If you witness or are experiencing racism or acts of prejudice at the University of Calgary, please reach out to the SU or an Ombudsperson at the U of C for help.

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