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It’s often said that Canadians don’t know how to talk about race, and while there were conspicuously few white faces in the crowd, it was standing room only at a recent community meeting about systemic racism in the region.

Early this year, Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) and allies defended a weeks-long encampment in front of Toronto police headquarters to protest the Special Investigations Unit’s decision not to press charges in Andrew Loku’s shooting death.

Following BLMTO’s direct actions the province created an Anti-Racism Directorate to “eliminate systemic racism in institutions governed or regulated by the Ontario government” and “increase public awareness of racism,” according to a release.

Individual racism is typically the result of one person’s discriminatory behaviour, and easy enough to identify: that person is a racist. Systemic racism describes how systems or institutions can unconsciously or unintentionally perpetuate racial discrimination. Examples include the serious overrepresentation of people of colour and indigenous people in our prison system, and also the way that many organizations take for granted their workplace culture, including how people ought to communicate and dress.

To work towards its goals the Directorate is gathering public input through community meetings across the province, including the October 24 meeting at Kitchener’s city hall.

Millie Falconer, an indigenous elder who lives in Kitchener, was one of the first to share. She was also one of many who told the Directorate that the historical trauma of colonization means anti-indigenous racism has a unique texture in Canada, though there are also important similarities with anti-black racism and Islamophobia.

Falconer shared about shopping in Stanley Park Mall this July, and being harassed by a cashier who followed her out of the mall while calling her “almost every name, from stupid Indian to lazy.”

“Indigenous people are still putting up with what they’ve been putting up with for years,” Falconer added.

Some shared – tentatively – that they welcomed any kind of conversation about race in Ontario.

“The elephant in the room is here,” said local resident Gebre Berihun, who added that multiculturalism and diversity are clichéd and harmful ways to talk about many people of colour’s experiences of racism in Canada.

Other speakers spoke about their hopes for what should come after the Directorate’s meetings.

“People are often hesitant to mandate change, but the reality with structural racism is that mandated racism landed us in this situation, so I don’t know how we can change it, if we don’t mandate change. And I would prefer to give that a try than to just talk and assume people will care, by hearing my stories of trauma and pain,” said Dr. Laura Mae Lindo to applause. Lindo is director of Wilfrid Laurier University’s diversity and equity office.

In his opening comments, assistant deputy minister Sam Erry shared that one key focus for the Directorate moving forward could be the collection of disaggregated race-based data.

“Where there’s no data, there’s no problem,” Erry said.

However, many others – including Erry, whose slideshow listed a sampling of recent relevant reports – pointed out that data abounds, and that this round of conversations seems similar to previous exercises in community consultation.

“Governments come out and speak to communities all the time. They gather information, we all know that. We suggest, we recommend a whole lot of stuff, and we don’t see a lot of changes. And then when there are [political] changes, something like the Anti-Racism Directorate dies,” said local resident Carl Cadogan.

“So now five or six years later, you’re creating a new Directorate to ask us questions, that all of the reports you cited, a lot of us have been a part of creating,” Cadogan continued. “So I think it’s important for you to consider how this would continue beyond two or three years.”

Chatting after the meeting, Shawn Johnston shared a similar analysis. Johnston is the events coordinator at the Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre, and pointed out that “there’s already 30 years of data,” referring to the 1992 Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario, the 1999 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and this year’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report, among many others.

“We collected the data for you, but we need action, not words,” Johnston said, adding that Coteau’s promise to return next year with the Directorate’s findings was inadequate.

“We can’t have another year of the current living conditions in Attawapiskat, and our kids killing themselves.”

The meeting ended with a request from indigenous elder Myeengun Henry.

“I’d like to ask each of you to look into your hearts and souls tonight, and take that step that only you can take, that says ‘I’m going to build a better world for my children, my grandchildren, and seven generations to come.’”