British Columbia

Here's what Metro Vancouver municipalities are doing to combat racism — or, more accurately, aren't

Some have citizen-led committees dedicated to diversity issues, while others — like Bowen Island, which has 28 separate committees — don’t.   

In the region, only Vancouver and New Westminster have comprehensive equity and anti-racism policies

A statue of George Vancouver outside of city hall is cleaned after being vandalized with paint in Vancouver, British Columbia on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Sav Dhaliwal is the longest serving person of colour in Metro Vancouver local politics, having been first elected to Burnaby council in 2002. 

But after the committee he chairs put forward a motion to update the city's equity policy for the first time since he's been elected — in a city where 64 per cent of residents identified as people of colour in the 2016 Census — Dhaliwal regrets he hasn't done more to fight racism and create anti-racism policies. 

"We haven't done a good job, and I take full responsibility. We thought things are reasonably going well. I'm a minority. I've been elected six times to council. I've been reasonably treated well without having to face direct racism," he said.

"But even though I haven't been discriminated against in terms of being elected to office … racism continues to exist and has picked up a little more steam."

Metro Vancouver chair Sav Dhaliwal has been a Burnaby councillor since 2002. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Scattershot approach

Burnaby's proposed update of its 1994 equity policy is fairly minimal: it explicitly mentions gender, gender identity, ethno-cultural identification, immigration status and sexual orientation, and replaces "committed to fairness" with "committed to ensuring" when talking about citywide goals. 

However, Metro Vancouver municipalities in general lack significant equity or anti-racism policies. 

A CBC News analysis of the websites, financial plans and annual reports of the region's 21 municipalities showed just two — Vancouver and New Westminster — apply equity or anti-racism policies in a detailed way to their operations.

Some municipalities have policies that haven't been updated in years — like Coquitlam's 2011 multicultural plan or the City of North Vancouver's 1997 social plan — and some haven't passed any plan. Some have citizen-led committees dedicated to diversity issues, while others — like Bowen Island, which has 28 separate committees — don't.

In recent days, Port Coquitlam has announced it will create its first ever roundtable on equity, diversity and inclusion, while Vancouver has said it will implement a number of internal equity initiatives.  

New Westminster Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said that while her city has made important steps by developing a social equity policy, it is important to remember that equity policies are a lens through which to make decisions, not a success in itself.

"Having a policy developed by the city is not enough," she said, adding the city needed to see more Black, Indigenous and racialized communities represented in decision making. 

"We have to more continually look at who's not being included in this perspective, who isn't being included, knowing that the city has been built off exclusionary and frankly racist policies in the past." 

External and internal

There are two primary ways municipalities can use anti-racism policies to enact change. 

One is through internal operations — what resources are available online and at city all or how employees are hired and trained, for example.

"When I first got elected, I looked around the room at how many other people of South Asian descent were sitting in the meetings and making important decisions for this community," said Surrey Coun. Jack Hundial.

In the 2016 census, 58 per cent of Surrey residents identified as a person of colour, but just two of eight councillors and three of 11 senior staff did. 

"And it's no knock against people that are already there. But if you don't have that exposure and understanding of the community and culture, it makes it very difficult to govern."

He says there's no diversity training available for new councillors and believes all staff should have formalized cultural sensitivity training, as part of their introduction to the job.  

"For a community such as Surrey and the diversity we alway promote here, we need to highlight diverse governance in the city, not just on council, but the structure itself."

Surrey Coun. Jack Hundial says all new city employees should have diversity training. (Harman/CBC)

'Can't legislate attitude'

Anti-racism and equity policies can also inform other staff policies and council decisions — a recent example being Vancouver's new cultural strategy, which focused on reconciliation and decolonization in cultural decisions over the next decade. 

Former Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer said things like setting targets and committing funding for projects create a level of accountability for governments beyond overarching policies. 

"Taking action doesn't make change inevitable, but not taking action makes change impossible," she said. 

"If we want to get somewhere, we have to articulate what getting somewhere looks like."

Reimer encourages other municipalities to adopt equity and anti-racism policies and frameworks, but said a municipality's ability to actively reduce racism is a long-term effort that goes beyond any one motion.

"You cannot legislate attitude," she said. 

"It's easy to mask the problem of systemic racism behind anti-racism initiatives. You can hold the festival, you can have music and you can have food and you can do that Black history month at city hall. But you can't avoid having to confront the fact that when there is an issue in the community, there's a pass-the-buck mentality around the structure itself."

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