Advocates call for new anti-racism committee to advise Edmonton city council

A special committee should be formed to advise Edmonton city council on how to tackle racism and promote inclusion, say some human rights advocates.

They also accuse the city of “dragging their feet” when it comes to tackling racism and making the city more inclusive.

The calls and criticism come as mayor and council consider an interim report Wednesday to develop a new inclusion and anti-racism framework.

“We’re dealing with lives of people who are experiencing hate and racism continuously,” said community advocate Ahmed Abdulkadir. “So our communities have to be at the table if we want reconciliation on this issue.”

The 44-page report and supporting documents, which were prompted by a motion passed in November 2016, include survey results of Edmontonians’ experiences of racism, feedback from community organizations, an inventory of current efforts as well as future proposals.

Of 402 Edmontonians surveyed by Banister Research last May and June, one in 10 reported either they or a family member had experienced discrimination in the past year. For racialized Edmontonians, that statistic doubled or nearly tripled.

Community activist Ufuoma Odebala-Fregene criticized both the update itself and the length of time it took to produce after community groups including Black Lives Matter Edmonton first took their concerns to the city in November 2016.

“At this point, I’m questioning their capacity to deliver,” said Odebala-Fregene. “They’re dragging their feet.”

‘No sense of urgency’

She criticized the report for being “a dump of ideas” when the impact of racism on Edmontonians has long been established.

“You should have dealt with all of this crap before you take it to council,” said Odebala-Frengene, who insisted it’s partly why a committee is needed to advise city council. “There’s no sense of urgency at all.”

Odebala-Fregene also urged the city to revise its diversity policy to include accountability for goals not met, as well as defining what racism means.

A new advisory committee — much like the one being considered to represent LGBTQ Edmontonians — should be made up of grassroots and impacted communities rather than “another figurehead,” said Abdulkadir.

He said the city’s multicultural office and current policies are “not cutting it,” but the formation of a new committee would allow the work to be ongoing, and guided by a road map and best practices rather than in reaction to incidents.

Abdulkadir pointed even further back to the city’s anti-racism framework developed after community consultation and surveys under the Racism Free Edmonton Committee, formed in June 2007.

He questioned why “we need to reinvent the wheel” and suggested someone should be held accountable for dropping the ball.

“Even though I welcome the idea that we need to do something about it, at the same time, what’s the lesson learned and how are we going to be different on this one?” he asked.

Concerns ‘don’t fall on deaf ears’ 

Mike Chow, acting director of multicultural relations, said the city has heard similar community concerns and insisted “they don’t fall on deaf ears.”

“I recognize and acknowledge that those are fair points,” said Chow. “As we move forward with this work, all of those things need to be acknowledged and need to be heard from the community.”

He said anti-racism work a decade ago shifted to inclusion work after federal and provincial funding dried up. But many of those suggestions are part of the current proposed framework.

The purpose of the interim report is to ground council in understanding the difference between inclusion work versus anti-racism work and the unique approaches required, said Chow.

He noted the relevance of the work at a time when Indigenous and multicultural communities are the “fastest growing” groups and those most impacted by policies, systems and structures “that have been historically oppressing these populations.”

Chow compared it to ongoing work in a marriage: “You always have to keep recommitting to it and spending time with it.”

The report to be considered by council on Wednesday focuses on work underway in collaboration with the community, the document said. Internal operations will be addressed in a separate report due on May 29.

The May report will also address name-blind recruitment, which Abdulkadir said is crucial to “level the playing field.”

He also suggested an independent oversight committee should be introduced so city staff can easily report workplace incidents of racism and discrimination.

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