Black groups say city manager's letter fails to accept responsibility for structural and systemic racism

They're calling on the city to abandon a planned town hall meeting and work harder to dismantle white supremacy and colonialism

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      The City of Vancouver's recent effort to acknowledge historic and current effects of anti-Black racism has fallen far short of the mark, according to Black groups and Black community members.

      In a June 29 letter with 26 signatures—including Black Lives Matter, Hogan's Alley Society, and B.C. Community Alliance—leaders in the community called on city manager Sadhu Johnston to commit to improving hiring and promotion practices, pay equity, and policy and program design.

      They also told Johnston that the city should scrap its plan for a virtual town hall meeting with community members.

      "It is time for white people in power to take up the work necessary to address anti-Black racism instead of constantly demanding that we perform our trauma for your education," their letter states. "In light of hundreds of years of consultation, we do not feel a Town Hall is appropriate or necessary."

      Furthermore, the letter states: "Addressing racism is not a special project or one-off program, it is a steadfast commitment to dismantle white supremacy and colonialism in the way you do business."

      In a June 17 open letter to members of Vancouver's Black and African diaspora communities, city manager Sadhu Johnston stated his commitment "to clearly and publicly acknowledge that we stand as allies with Vancouver's Black communities".

      He also pledged that he and another senior city staff member, Sandra Singh, will host the virtual town hall for the Black and African diaspora communities.

      In their response, the Black groups and community members acknowledged that Johnston's statement "was made with the best of intentions".

      However, they expressed disappointment that "thousands of hours of our unpaid labour to provide analysis and recommendations to your office on these very issues were not addressed or reflected in the City's proposed next steps to support a more equitable relationship with Black/African diaspora communities".

      "First, the Letter failed to unequivocally accept responsibility for structural and systemic racism in your institution," the Black groups and community members wrote to Johnston. "It states that you 'have a moral and civic duty' to take action against anti-Black racism, but there is no acknowledgement that this resides in the City’s structure and in ongoing policy direction and decision-making.

      "Likewise, instead of speaking generally about racism 'in Vancouver', the letter could have been forthright in acknowledging that the City hasn’t 'done nearly enough' to address anti-Black racism and about the absence of Black and Indigenous people in leadership or in senior levels of management like CMHC did." it continued. 

      "Without being accountable for the ways that anti-Black racism shows up in City policies, programs, and decision-making, we find this statement rings quite hollow at a time when bold and courageous leadership is necessary."

      Black community members want city manager Sadhu Johnston to approve a memorandum of understanding with Hogan's Alley Society.
      Yolande Cole

      City has already heard from Black community

      The letter also points out that volumes of academic research have documented the past and present conditions of Black people in Vancouver, with many studies offering policy recommendations.

      In 2017, for example, consultants for the city wrote a report summarizing months of consultation by the Hogan's Alley Working Group with the Black community on the redevelopment of Northeast False Creek.

      "In 2019 the City engaged a scholar to prepare a report on anti-Black racism in Vancouver as part of the Healthy City Strategy," the letter added. "It made specific recommendations to the City based on the findings and recommendations made in the 2017 Report of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada." 

      More recently, Hogan's Alley Society, Black Lives Matter Vancouver, the B.C. Community Alliance, and people who staged a peaceful protest on the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts issued calls for action. The letter from Black groups and community members pointed out that some of those peaceful protesters were charged with criminal offences.

      "Your letter offers no acknowledgement of the specific asks from these groups and others, and this omission is egregious and harmful," the letter to Johnston states. "In light of the above, it is clear that the Black community has been speaking to you for a long time to express our 'experiences, frustrations, hopes, and suggested actions' but it would appear that the City has failed to listen."

      The letter goes on to highlight how Black ancestors were "enslaved in colonial Canada" and relegated to "precarious, lower-paid, labour-intensive jobs". That, the letter states, is part of a long-term pattern of the community being treated as "sources of extraction for the dominant white society".

      The letter concludes by recommending that the city address anti-Black racism by "consulting the volumes of available Canadian literature and years of documented Black community engagement" in policing, education, housing, health care, and other relevant program and policy areas.

      In addition, the letter calls on the city to respond to specific calls to action from Black community groups, including an immediate ban on police street checks and executing a memorandum of understanding for a nonprofit community land trust with Hogan's Alley Society.

      "Finally, we strongly refute your claims that work with 'HAS and the Black and African diaspora communities on Hogan’s Alley has been persistent' as this is categorically false," the letter to Johnston insists. "Over two years have passed since HAS submitted, in April 2018, a draft Memorandum of Understanding. To date, City staff have not provided a direct response to that document.

      "There are also no clear commitments to the Black community confirming that the City will not seek to extract revenue from the Hogan’s Alley block—a site they came to possess through the systematic destruction and displacement of the Black community—to pay for the NEFC plan."

      Read Sadhu Johnston's letter here.

      Read the response from Black groups and community members here.