A billboard that drew the ire of some Saskatoon residents online is being heralded as a much-needed conversation starter about racism. 

The sign on Circle Drive is one of four put up by the City of Saskatoon as part of its $21,000 campaign called "I am the Bridge" — a multimedia effort designed to share people's stories and insights on their experiences with racism.

One particular billboard shows a photo of a man who appears to be white and a quote that reads "I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes." 

Sheelah Mclean, a co-founder of Idle No More and an anti-opression educator, says she understands why billboards about white privilege and racism make some people uncomfortable.

'There are going to be people who feel guilt' - Sheelah McLean 

"There are going to be people who feel guilt, there are going to be people who are going to feel sadness that they didn't know this information, they had never been taught it. There are going to be people who feel anger. It's all called backlashing," McLean said. 

FSIN says billboards are generating discussion 

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron agrees. He says the billboard is part of ongoing and important conversations concerning race and prejudice around the province. 

"It's a good thing if it's generating discussion. There will always be some negative comments and everything else. But we can pray for them and we certainly do," Cameron said.

City Saskatoon anti-racism campaign

Another one of the four billboards which are part of the City of Saskatoon's anti-racism campaign. (City of Saskatoon)

Cameron pointed to commitments and agreements the FSIN has made in recent months with several Saskatchewan municipalities as evidence that things are moving in the right direction. 

"We cannot change the attitudes or opinions of the 50-year-olds or the 60-year-olds who have always hated people for their skin colour. We cannot change them. But we can start focusing and educating those children to understand that we are in the province, this world together," Cameron said. 

The City of Saskatoon spearheaded the anti-racism campaign, which ran on a smaller scale in 2015 and 2016. This year, the city spent $14,000 on the campaign, up from $2,260 in 2015 and $5,521 in 2016. The 2017 campaign includes advertisements in eight transit shelters as well as bars and restaurants across the city.  

During the launch, Mayor Charlie Clark said the campaign was about "building relationships and a shared understanding."

Backlash part of the 'myth of meritocracy'

McLean says decades of research and experiences of aboriginal and other visible minority Canadians has shown that white privilege is real. 

"The idea that white privilege doesn't exist or that not everybody benefits from it who is light skinned is actually false, it's a fallacy," McLean said.

She says as a white person she understands how being confronted with that knowledge can be upsetting for some. McLean herself participated in the campaign by offering her own thoughts on racism.   

She says the "myth of meritocracy" — the idea that light skinned people get to where they are solely because of things like hard work — is simply not true. 

While she says many light skinned or white people may have felt oppression in one form or another, they have not felt racial oppression. Educating people about privilege and racism, she says, is what the campaign is all about. . 

City defends billboards 

The project asked citizens to submit videos sharing their experiences, and the most powerful quotes were used to create the campaign.

"It's real people who live in Saskatoon. It's not staged actors, nor did the city make up those quotes," said Lynne Lacroix, the city's director of community development.

"These billboards were not intended to suggest that all people have to do the same thing or that all people are racist."

The city's website points out the fact that racism exists in Saskatoon. One cited example is the fact a large majority of Aboriginal people in Saskatoon agree with the statement  "I think others behave in an unfair/negative way towards Aboriginal people." That came from a research project called 'Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study: Saskatoon Report' done back in 2011. 

Lacroix said she is pleased the campaign is creating discussion around racism in Saskatoon. 

"Also encouraging the rest of the community to gain a broader understanding of the nature of racism because that is what is really critical for us all to recognize, to know what racism is, in order to address it," she said. 

Ali Abukar Saskatoon Open Door Society

Saskatoon Open Door Society executive director Ali Abukar sees the discussion over the city's billboard as an opportunity for the community. (CBC News/Olivier Ferapie)

Newcomers group welcomes discussion 

Saskatoon Open Door Society executive director Ali Abukar sees the discussion as an opportunity to talk about not only racism but other connected issues, such as poverty and homelessness. 

He said issues of racism and privilege relate to the events of the past. 

"Some people are in a disadvantaged position where others are opposite and it is not because of what they did or because of who they are, it is more what happened in the past and that is something that is ongoing," said Abukar.

"So people will feel uncomfortable, obviously some people will have some questions, but I see it as a big opportunity for our community because it starts that conversation where people have to talk about these issues."