Black activists in Ottawa say the pending addition of an anti-racism role on council is a first step that does not go far enough to address what they call systemic racial issues in the city.
Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King was tapped Tuesday by the finance and economic development committee to become city council’s first liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations.
Pending council approval, the new role will function similarly to Coun. Theresa Kavanagh’s position advocating for women and gender issues in shaping city policy.
King, who became Ottawa’s first-ever Black councillor after winning a byelection in his ward last year, said during the meeting Tuesday that Canada and its capital city are not immune to the racial injustice concerns fuelling protests in the United States and some Canadian cities in recent days.
Anger erupted this past week when George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, Minn., died while in police custody after a white officer was filmed kneeling on his neck.
“We must recognize that racism, injustice and entrenched systematic inequality has as much impact in Canada as south of the border. This country has its share of hate. And Ottawa is no stranger to racism, race-based discrimination and economic and social disparity,” King said.
He went on to cite rising instances of hate crimes against racialized, Indigenous, Jewish and Muslim people in Ottawa.
King also said discrimination through “prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping” contributes to socio-economic inequalities in Ottawa.
In addition to King’s new role, City Hall will hire an “anti-racism specialist” in the next few weeks as part of an Anti-Racism Secretariat pledged in the 2020 municipal budget.
One role doesn’t go far enough, activists say
But members of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition who spoke to Global News on Thursday say the new initiative, while it could be a start, is “performative” and masks years of inaction in addressing systemic issues raised by the city’s Black community.
“Any step that anyone is taking to even think of the issues of Black folks is a good step. But I don’t think it is anywhere near enough,” says Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi.
Moumouni-Tchouassi says that even if it’s not captured in the recent proliferation of videos documenting police violence, members of Ottawa’s Black community feel the effects of racism every day.
From carding and surveillance to a lack of mental health resources to day-to-day interactions with non-Black community members, prejudice and discrimination is a daily reality for Black folks in Ottawa, she says.
“In Ottawa there isn’t ever a place or a question as to where racism isn’t, it’s in everything that Black folks have to interact with.”
Moumouni-Tchouassi says the liaison role’s lack of a specific mandate that addresses the documented concerns of Ottawa’s Black residents is a problem.
Shanese Steele tells Global News she believes King’s new role will place undue expectations on the councillor, the only person of colour on all of city council.
It should not fall to the city’s first Black councillor to enact systemic change, she says — it is the responsibility of the nearly two dozen other elected representatives around the table to show they’re ready to engage and enact meaningful change to make Black Ottawans feel safe on city streets, in schools and at work.
“The fact that all of this labour is going to be put on the shoulders of this Black man, I’m saddened,” Steele says.
“The reality is, if this does not succeed, it will be his shoulders that the burden of the failure will be on.”
Watson to march in protest
Mayor Jim Watson also took the opportunity during Tuesday morning’s FEDCO meeting to denounce systemic racism, while acknowledging it exists in Ottawa.
“Racism is present in our midst … and we must continue to stamp it out whenever it rears its ugly head, whether it’s in the community, at a police station, at City Hall, or anywhere else,” he said.
Watson’s comments come one day after Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly announced an officer on the force would be charged in connection with the creation of an allegedly racist meme that was distributed through the organization.
Sloly acknowledged Monday in an open letter that “inequities and injustices are a reality” in Ottawa and that there have recently been “racially charged flash points between the police and community.”
Watson also said in his remarks that he plans to attend a protest march being organized for Friday at 3 p.m. in front of the U.S. embassy.
But Steele and Moumouni-Tchouassi see the move as an empty gesture.
“I think that it’s a very pathetic attempt at ignoring the fact, or distracting folks from the fact, that he has not addressed anti-Black racism in his city,” says Moumouni-Tchouassi.
Steele, who says Watson’s march would equate to political “clout-chasing,” says it does not track for the leader of a system to march alongside citizens who are protesting the inequalities inherent to that system.
“Jim Watson is marching against himself,” she says.
Asked whether he believes it’s appropriate for him to attend the protest, Watson said in a statement through a spokesperson Tuesday evening that he accepted an invitation from members of the community to attend Friday’s march.
“He will not have a formal role at the gathering, but believes it is important to participate and stand in solidarity against anti-Black racism, and any other form of racism in our society,” his press secretary said in an email.
Some demonstrations across the United States have turned violent in recent days; tensions also flared following a protest in Montreal Sunday night when police declared the demonstration illegal and arrested 11 people.
Steele says that if Watson is insistent on attending Friday’s march in Ottawa, he should be on the frontlines protecting Black residents should any violence erupt between police and protesters.
“It’s always nice to come and take a picture with Black folks and shake hands and pretend you’re down for the cause, but at the end of the day, what are you actually doing to make sure that those Black lives are safe?” asks Moumouni-Tchouassi.
© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.