Media reports over the past few months about racist and xenophobic incidents in Edmonton might lead one to believe that these occurrences are new or on the rise. Some might even attribute the perceived increase to the campaign and election of Donald Trump for US President, suggesting that bigots have somehow been unleashed to spew the hate they’ve been holding inside for so long. To accept either of these propositions serves to erase the fact that our city has a long history of both bad behaviour and inadequate responses to it.
When Mayor Iveson unveiled the #MakeItAwkward twitter campaign with Jesse Lipscombe this fall, he called on Edmontonians to come together under the Racism Free Edmonton and other city initiatives.
“I am so proud of the way he [Lipscombe] is turning his experience into a conversation started about the need to call out racism and bigotry towards anyone in our community,” Iveson wrote on Facebook at the time.
But Racism Free Edmonton no longer exists. And while Lipscombe has done a good job of keeping the hashtag in the media, this conversation started a long time ago with long-time Alex Taylor School Principal Steve Ramsankar at the forefront of advocating for anti-racism strategies as far back as the early ’90s.
It was 2007 before city council announced its membership in the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination and three more years before Racism Free Edmonton was born. Originally conceived as an arms-length-from-city-council community-driven strategy, it was quickly overtaken by a long list of organizations like post-secondary institutions and the Edmonton Police Service. Other than a 2010 website and a 2012 survey that asked Edmontonians about their perceptions related to discrimination, the initiative produced few outcomes.
By the time those survey results were released, the Racism Free Edmonton website had disappeared, the community members had long since stopped participating, and the program was relegated to a brief description on the city’s website, finally removed entirely in June of this year.
Which is why a motion passed by city council last month directing city administration to prepare a framework to guide, facilitate and coordinate efforts to support inclusion and eliminate racism in Edmonton pisses me off a little bit. All of this work has already been done. What we lacked was any political will to carry it forward.
If the city is serious about putting a dent in racism and discrimination, it needs to go back to the original framework conceived for Racism Free Edmonton and provide support to a grassroots, community-driven program that sometimes asks the large institutions hard questions, not one that is driven by them.