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Eliminating anti-black racism in Ottawa: Progress is slow, but we'll get there

Monday April 9, 2018

Many people gathered at the Anti-Black Racism Town Hall at Ottawa City Hall last month. (Photo: Tony Caldwell) Tony Caldwell / Tony Caldwell/Postmedia Network 

Progress rarely comes easily, or quickly enough.

That is certainly true about efforts to address local anti-black racism.

We reached a significant milestone in late March with the “Addressing Anti-Black Racism in Ottawa” town hall aimed at reviewing progress – honestly and head-on.

The town hall, which drew a crowd of more than 250, was one step in a long road that has included an initial community Forum on Anti-Black Racism in August 2016, and a subsequent report. These are part of a larger collective journey to dismantle all forms of racism and the effects of colonization on Indigenous Peoples.

For many, change hasn’t come fast enough. Traffic stop data show that Ottawa police stopped black drivers more than twice as often as their numbers in the population would warrant. Nearly three-quarters of black Ontario residents in a 2017 survey reported having been racially profiled — treated with suspicion due to race. Black Canadians had a 71 per cent higher unemployment rate than non-racialized Canadians in 2016.

Attendees’ stories provided painful and horrific reminders of the racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, Islamophobia and xenophobia that Ottawa’s black communities face.

It is essential to acknowledge these experiences of discrimination. It is also important to recognize the significance of what took place at the forum: Institutions publicly acknowledged the existence of systemic anti-black racism, and our community engaged in a challenging but necessary conversation about eliminating racism and holding public institutions accountable.

We know from our engagement with institutions and communities that institutions, spurred by community groups, have taken some important steps, for example: introducing anti-racism and anti-oppression policies; addressing racism in hiring, retention, and promotion of staff; creating more diverse boards; developing systems for collecting and using racially disaggregated data; improving community engagement and outreach; addressing racial profiling.

The efforts of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition to improve police accountability through legislative reforms is one example of community working with institutions and government to make meaningful change. Public concerns are being heard and acted upon – but much more remains to be done.

We can also look to other jurisdictions – such as Toronto, which recently adopted the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism—and to the province’s Anti-Racism Directorate, as a committed partner in this work.

Following the town hall, Erica Ifill’s commentary in these pages cited concerns over the lack of a clear plan, goals, indicators and accountability measures for addressing anti-black racism. We agree – and are working to get there. Our approach has been to build solid consensus around the issues while nurturing trust, fostering cooperation, and supporting institutional change. We are committed to working with institutions and community partners to collectively identify goals, measures and indicators towards eliminating anti-black racism.

Justice for Abdirahman and Somali Women’s Circle Network member Nimao Ali, who spoke at the town hall as a parent and as a neighbour who witnessed the death of Abdirahman Abdi, reminded the audience that these conversations are not easy but community and institutions need one another. “It’s a difficult conversation,” she said. “It’s important for us to respect each other and understand and listen to each other. Otherwise alone we cannot do anything.”

The good news is that there is a clear path forward. We will walk it together to make Ottawa as equitable, inclusive and barrier-free as we all deserve it to become. We welcome everyone to join us in the movement to end systemic racism in our city.

This opinion piece was submitted by the Organizing Committee of the Town Hall on Addressing Anti-Black Racism in Ottawa:

Farhia Ahmed is chair of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition.

Nimao Ali is a member of the Somali Women’s Circle Network and Justice for Abdirahman Coalition.

Valerie Assoi is a member of the City for All Women (CAWI) steering committee.

Matilda Cole is project director at NewLife Project Inc.

Denise Deby is partner relations officer and coordinator of Equity Ottawa at the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership (OLIP).

Suzanne Doerge is the director of CAWI.

Amira Elghawaby is a journalist and human rights advocate.

Patricia Harewood is a member of the CAWI steering committee.

Hindia Mohamoud is the director of OLIP.

Ketcia Peters is chief executive officer of North South Development Roots and Culture Canada.

Mohamed Sofa is a member of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition.

Suleikha Ali Yusuf is a member of the Town Hall organizing committee.


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