The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many fault lines in society and it is forcing communities to come to terms with issues such as prejudice, discrimination and inequalities based on racial stereotypes.
The online Swift Current community forum on Wednesday evening, July 29, gave participants an opportunity to have an open dialogue about racism and discrimination.
This virtual event was hosted by the Southwest Newcomer Welcome Centre and the Southwest Multicultural Association in association with the Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan (MCoS).
It was arranged as a replacement for a public event that was supposed to take place in Swift Current on March 30. The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to proceed with that gathering, which was organized to be an anti-racism event to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The online event was well attended with over 70 participants. It featured four guest speakers and small group discussions in virtual breakout rooms.
The program started with a presentation about racism and anti-racism by MCoS Executive Director Rhonda Rosenberg.
“The existence of racism is something that impacts everybody and pulls us all back in lots of ways,” she said. “So there are so many ways that we want to create change.”
She referred to four goals of anti-racism education, which are to deepen self-knowledge of our own experiences and awareness of our own perceptions, biases and stereotypes; to acquire an understanding of our own situations and also to build an understanding of the experiences of others; to de-centre and extend empathy to others; and to become leaders for change.
She emphasized that race is not a genetic or biological concept, but it is a social construct that has an impact on the lives of people.
“That means that it was created in order to differentiate between people to give privileges to some and oppress or exploit others,” she said.
Racism is a combination of racial prejudice with power. It is not just about having stereotypes or judgements about people, but it is combined with power to be able to harm someone or to exploit or oppress them. A hierarchy is created and this results in a situation where the labour, land and resources of some people are going to benefit those who create this idea of race.
White privilege does not mean a person’s life has not been hard, but it means your skin colour is not one of the things making it harder.
“One of the tricky things about privilege is that it's almost intentionally invisible for the people who carry it, but it's very visible if you do not carry it,” she said. “So it's just kind of breaking through that wall of realizing that this something that has not made my life harder.”
She referred to the different forms of racism, which can be individual racism, internalized racism, cultural racism, and systemic or institutional racism.
“Everybody internalizes racism, and it happens in two really different ways,” she said. “People who are targeted by racism and who are at the bottom of the hierarchy, come to believe that the stereotypes and prejudices of racism are valid. People privileged by racism come to believe their own superiority.”
The four guest speakers shared their personal experiences to provide different perspectives on racism and discrimination.
Star Andreas, an activist from Regina who has been called a Cree woman warrior, spoke about her involvement with the protest in downtown Regina to have the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald removed from Victoria Park.
“We don't want it destroyed,” she emphasized. “We just want it to relocate to maybe a museum, because they have our artefacts there, all our stuff there. Why can't it go there, because Victoria Park is a beautiful park. It should be enjoyed by everybody.”
She is also advocating for the change of the names of Dewdney Avenue and Dewdney Pool Park, which is named after Edgar Dewdney. He carried out Macdonald’s policies against indigenous people that helped to clear the land for European settlement.
“Macdonald and Dewdney are the two men that tried to get rid of us,” Andreas said. “This is Treaty 4 territory. It's time for a change.”
She referred to incidents of racism against indigenous people at businesses in Regina and her involvement with protests at those locations.
Megan de Jager-Erasmus, a Swift Current youth and University of Saskatchewan student, spoke about her involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Black Lives Matter is a cause that has helped bring attention to the discrimination of black people, but I also believe it has helped to create another voice for indigenous people as well,” she said. “It brings power to groups of minorities so that we are able to stand together. In a way, it is a gateway to truly understanding the mistreatment of people of colour.”
She noted an indigenous person in Canada is 10 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a white person. She referred to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on negative attitudes towards certain groups, which has resulted in an increase in discrimination against Asian people.
“So clearly racism is extremely prevalent in our society, but I'm proud to say that our youth are trying to create change,” she said.
She reflected on her own white privilege and how she can actually use it to further the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There will always be times that my voice is heard and often valued more than people of colour, which is wrong, but shows the depth of power that white privilege possesses,” she said. “But because of this privilege that I shouldn't have but do have, I can fight alongside my brothers and sisters by using that privilege.”
She emphasized that she is not trying to speak on behalf of people of colour, but her role is to be an ally to their cause.
“I believe it is our duties as members of our community to fight against any oppression that occurs by working together with Black, Asian, Indigenous and other people of colour by learning from them and standing behind them during their fight,” she said.
Swift Current resident Sylvia Thorburn, who is on the local Truth and Reconciliation Committee, spoke about her efforts as an elder and educator to share her lived experiences and the traditions of Cree culture with students of all ages.
“I'm starting to see that, as I get older, the systems have changed over the years, but some of the behaviours have still been consistent to what people still struggle with,” she said. “My own experience is that each generation now has to experience a different form of finding ways to fight against racism.”
She had to learn her own culture again during the process of becoming an elder and she uses her knowledge to empower the younger generation.
“A lot of this is because of the loss of culture and when we talk about racism, it's about loss of culture too,” she said. “I'm trying to empower my kids and my grandchildren how to re-empower themselves through their culture, through awareness, through traditions, and to embrace it and not be ashamed of it.”
She considers education to be an important part of the process to break down stereotypes and to create awareness about First Nations culture.
“It's been an honour to represent First Nations people in the southwest in the schools, because it has become the most important avenue in my life where I can promote a healthy view of what First Nations culture is about and to slowly step away from that stigma of First Nations people,” she said. “I want my children and my grandchildren to move forward. I do not want them to stay stuck in a mindset where things are never going to change.”
Thorburn felt the sharing of information about the past and about reconciliation is an essential component of the process of reconciliation.
“I really believe that if you can open up the consciousness of a group of people in a region or area, you're already moving forward into reconciliation,” she said. “That's part of the future, and you have to keep it going.”
Mary-Ann Kirkby, the author of the best-selling book I Am Hutterite, spoke about the importance of cultural heritage in our shared humanity. She grew up on a Hutterite colony in Manitoba, but her parents left the community to live in mainstream society when she was 10 years old.
She struggled for many years to come to terms with her identity and her own Hutterite background.
“As a young girl, I was deeply affected by the rejection on the basis of how I looked and how I dressed,” she said. “I realized that my culture has no value in mainstream society and in order to fit in, I was going to have to sound like everybody, dress like everybody else, and it took many years for me to transition and to transform myself.”
She had a successful career in journalism, but often ended up in situations where people made disparaging remarks about Hutterites without being aware of her background.
“It occurred to me that in the course of my transformation, I had lost a piece of myself,” she said. “That's how I came to realize that I was ashamed of my culture, I was deeply wounded by people's misperceptions about it. And that gave me the courage to write my memoir. … I wanted to set the record straight and to confront misperceptions and racist attitudes towards Hutterite people.”
She realized through her own experience how important it is for everyone to embrace their own cultural heritage.
“Our humanity is what we have in common, but our cultural heritage is a gift each of us is given at birth,” she said. “And unless we embrace that gift and value the power it is meant to bring to our lives, we will never reach our full potential and we will never reach our full potential as a country if we don't learn to value each other the same way, because unless we learn to cherish and really love each other for our unique difference, we will never be really grown up and mature as a country.”
The online community forum concluded with small group discussions about what people can do to reject expressions of racism in their communities. Afterwards the groups reported back to the larger forum and shared two outstanding ideas from their discussions.
The importance of education was a common theme in these discussions. It was noted that the conversation about oppression, discrimination and racism must start at everyone’s home.
There was concern about the expressions of hate on social media. Another common feeling was that people need to look at what they can do in their own community to have those tough conversations about racism and discrimination. There was a feeling that more diversity is needed in positions of authority to ensure that the voices of everyone are represented.
Southwest Newcomer Welcome Centre Executive Director Icasiana de Gala said in her closing remarks that this conversation will have to continue to create a welcoming community for everyone.
“There's a lot of progress already, we are in a place where we're not used to be, but we can still do something,” she mentioned. “We could do more, and starting a conversation would be great.”