Confronting systemic racism

Following recent high-profile incidents of racism, this session provided an opportunity for delegates to explore the ways in which racism continues to manifest in Canada and concrete approaches to confronting systemic racism. The panel included Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada; Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, and; Harsha Walia, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.

Chief Dr. Robert Joseph provided a stark reminder of the experience of Indigenous people in Canada. From colonization and residential schools to current rates of incarceration, unemployment, and suicide, Chief Joseph spoke to the experience of Indigenous people in the face of the “hatred that fuels racism.” In the current context, Chief Joseph spoke to the way in which COVID has illuminated our oneness and interconnectedness and offered a moment to reflect deeply on our relationships.

Urging delegates to talk about racism “like we have never talked about it before,” Joseph observed that “we have the resources, we have the guideposts to further mitigate and eliminate racism. What we need to do is to further our resolve and will to do the work that is necessary to carry it forward.”

Next Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah spoke to the extent to which identifying and addressing racism must be intentional and by design. He explained that systemic racism is not often understood and took the time to walk delegates through the concepts of individual, institutional, and structural racism; all of which combine to create and perpetuate systemic racism. 

Speaking specifically to the experience of black Canadians, Dr. Owusu-Bempah spoke to the fact that slavery and segregation created myths and mistruths about black people that impact current experiences in employment, justice system, health care, and other aspects of every day. In order to truly address racism Owusu-Bempah cautioned that we must overcome the “no data, no problem” issue and advocate for the inclusion of race-based data as a key means of identifying both race-based problems and solutions.

In terms of local governments, he suggested working to remove barriers to services and to consider the development of intern and co-op programs – in all areas of municipal service delivery – for underrepresented groups. Invoking the Convention theme, Dr. Owusu-Bempah foretold that the “provision of opportunity is a key way to be anti-racist by design.”

Harsha Walia said that there are currently more than 130 white supremacy groups in Canada, which represents a 30% rise in the past few years. Drawing on the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, she spoke to systemic racism as legalized discrimination that creates a vulnerability to premature death, as evidenced by life expectancy rates, police-involved deaths, deportation, overdoses, and direct impact by climate change.

Ms. Walia characterized COVID as a compounding factor to racialized people who may not have the ability to work from home, access health care or, in the case of many Indigenous communities in Canada, to follow hygiene practices that require clean water.

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