Rishi Sharma: Normalizing uncomfortable conversations to help build better policy 

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      By Rishi Sharma

      Is racism just white on brown, is it brown on white or can it be brown on brown? The answer is yes, yes, and yes.

      We need more Canadian leaders, politicians, and public servants to understand that statement better and be comfortable discussing all forms of discrimination so we can build better policy in Canada. The time to act is now.

      This article focuses on racism, one form of discrimination and oppression that still exists today.

      Have you ever been with a group of friends having an informal conversation when all of a sudden and inadvertently, you become the centre of attention because of something someone said out loud? Was it because you disagreed with the choice of favourite movie? Maybe it was because you were wearing a sports jersey that the group disliked. All were biased but for some reason comfortable and no hard feelings, right but normal.

      Or maybe was it because someone just said their parents would NEVER let them date or marry a Black or brown person and the group all nodded in agreement and you just happened to be the only coloured person in the group? No, never happened? Welcome to an uncomfortable conversation. Yes, very uncomfortable and unfortunate but maybe it’s time to make that conversation more normalized so we can finally have mature, intelligent, and helpful conversations to effect real change.

      Before I go on, let me quickly reverse the uncomfortable conversation. I have been involved in a discriminatory situation where the one mainstream (white) individual in the conversation was similarly treated with disrespect and bias. It was interesting to see what happened with that group—a clear feeling of regret and remorse by those people of colour but interestingly, immediate and sincere apologies. It seemed there was an awareness of the fault and hurt that may have been caused.

      To self-locate myself to this topic and the lived experiences that I am sharing, I am cisgender male of South Asian heritage from British Columbia. I was born in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Port Alberni currently has a population of approximately 17,500. It is a diverse community that has gone through its own inequality and racist challenges.

      My family moved from Port Alberni to Victoria when I was four years old, but I visited often. I remember well going for a visit one summer to spend time with my grandparents as a young man. Grandpa took me for a grocery run and when we parked, we were met by a group of Indigenous youths. They were loudly calling out to my grandpa and I saw him smiling and laughing but he seemed nervous. I quickly realized he was doing his best keep his composure and make me feel comfortable.

      It was so strange for me to hear and see these brown people, youths, accosting him with racial comments. His reputation was one that made me fear him. I was confused but learned that maybe it is best to ignore and acknowledge instead of lash out. I also learned that day that racism and hate will come in all forms, and can be directed by white or people of colour.

      My grandpa’s actions that day stuck with me. Recently, I ran as a candidate in the provincial election and unfortunately racial slurs were thrown directly at me—this is not the only time, but the most recent. I remembered my grandpa’s lesson well and used the same approach to help defuse the situation.

      I’m raising these examples to highlight the discrimination and racism that exists in Canada. It is prevalent in and across all cultures and we need to move forward, to heal relationships and build a better home for all of us.

      One way we can start the change is through direct support from our orders of government (e.g. provincial and federal). Public policy is a very powerful tool in the toolbox. However, we need effective leaders and allies at the table to ensure success. Local governments are not immune to issues of racism and should also be considering building better policies. 

      In 2019, the Canadian government introduced Building a Foundation for Change: Canada's Anti-Racism Strategy 2019-2022As noted, the strategy is expected to increase equity of access and participation among racialized communities, religious minorities, and Indigenous Peoples to employment, justice and social participation, as well as increased public awareness of the barriers and challenges faced by racialized communities, religious minorities, and Indigenous Peoples.

      There are some interesting strategies, including an Anti-Racism Secretariat, “established to lead work across government to coordinate federal action and identify and develop further areas for action through engagement with communities and Indigenous Peoples, stakeholders, and other levels of government”.

      At first glance the initiative seems very well intentioned and notably backed by a large sum of taxpayers’ dollars to complete its intended goal. Having said that, many of the programs mentioned in the report to help with anti-racism and anti-discrimination have been in place for several years and then the same report notes a rise in hate crimes.

      Where there needs to be more focus is on anti-racism and anti-discrimination education and awareness initiatives, many Canadians are still unaware of the discrimination, colonization and racism felt by our respective Black, Indigenous and People of Colour communities.To be fair, I feel that maybe some members of BICOP communities aren’t familiar enough with the others unfair past in Canada. For example, there are still unanswered questions about Indigenous community support in the Komogatmaru tragedy. All questions aside, I am sure more acknowledgement and awareness of the uncomfortable incidents would benefit all communities in Canada. It would be an opportunity to have a discussion on why and how this could have happened in such a perceived to be progressive province and country.

      There needs to be more opportunities for questions and conversations about other serious incidents of racism in our country. The initiatives in the federal government’s Building a Foundation for Change: Canada's Anti-Racism Strategy 2019-2022 are a good start but more in the areas of education and awareness would be beneficial.

      One additional initiative could be a federal-provincial and territorial (FPT) table on antiracism. Ontario has moved forward with some innovative solutions and more collaboration between FPT governments would help with harmonizing efforts and highlighting some of the best solutions. It would also be mandatory to have Indigenous the representation at the table.

      This annual forum could be used to tackle some of the most egregious racist actions of the past but also some of the most recent incidents that continue to happen. For example, the nooses found on a construction site in Ontario. We should not shy away from making this a national conversation and use our collective leaders with the skills to have these difficult conversations and ensure this does not happen again.

      Another topic for the national table should be adequate diversity and inclusion training for individuals in the public system. While the focus should be on hiring individuals with the essential skills and knowledge to have uncomfortable conversations and hiring individuals with skills to introduce appropriate measures to ensure racism and discrimination are discussed at every level, there should also be a priority on culture, diversity, and inclusion and anti-oppression training.

      We need more leaders in the public system: K-12 education, postsecondary, orders of government, and Crown corporations who experienced discrimination and racism firsthand; however, we also need to train individuals who are willing to be allies—upskilling and and learning so they can help build the necessary internal systems for change.

      Creating a world without racism and discrimination will not be easy. Building systems in our communities to be able to have trusted, safe, and normalized conversations about tragic events of racist events of our past is an important and necessary step in the right direction.

      Rishi Sharma is a diversity and inclusion aficionado who ran for the B.C. Liberals in the last provincial election.