Fighting racism, changing values 'an uphill battle' for Calgary committee

Not being served at a restaurant, being passed over for a job or an apartment, being told to "go back to where you came from" — those are some of the experiences members of Calgary's Anti-Racism Action Committee have faced and continue to face. 

Calgary's leading anti-racism advocates push for change, encourages Calgarians to share their stories

Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Calgary to protest against police violence and racism in June 2020. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Not being served at a restaurant, being passed over for a job or an apartment, being told to "go back to where you came from" — those are some of the experiences members of Calgary's Anti-Racism Action Committee (ARAC) have faced and continue to face.

They're sharing their experiences and calling for action from Calgarians to change the way people think about and treat minority groups and racialized people.

It's a conversation they say must continue following a tumultuous and emotional 18 months that included the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools across the country, anti-racism and anti-police demonstrations and the renaming of community facilities and schools.

"It gets to the point of, you know, why try so hard to be a good person, when really these people are treating us like we're dirt," said Eileen Clearsky, who is one of the committee members who says she's experienced racism her entire life. 

She says has been refused service at a restaurant near Calgary, and didn't get a job as an elementary school teacher after finishing a master's degree in educational leadership.

Clearsky says that although the ongoing racism is upsetting, she would rather push for change than retreat.

"I lean on others to get support in trying to achieve … a good outcome for everybody."

She joined the ARAC to share her experiences and to hear from racialized Calgarians, specifically Indigenous people.

One of her goals is to make City Hall, schools and universities more inclusive. She also wants more Indigenous input and collaboration with the Calgary Police Service.

Anti-racism conversation amplified, but needs to be sustained: committee co-chair

The ARAC was formed in October 2020, five months after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis during a police arrest. His death sparked protests around the world against racism and policing.

The ARAC's mandate is to develop and implement a community-wide anti-racism strategy for Calgary.

Clearsky is Métis from the Waywayseecappo First Nation in Manitoba. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta in the Department of Educational Policy. She's also an assistant professor at Mount Royal University and works as a faculty development consultant in Indigenization at the university.

Sonia Aujla-Bhullar co-chairs the committee. The mother of three was born and raised in Calgary; her family is from Punjab, India. She has a PhD in curriculum and learning with a focus on anti racism and inclusion.

Eileen Clearsky, left, and Sonia Aujla-Bhullar are members of the city's Anti-Racism Action committee. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Aujla-Bhullar says while the anti-racism conversation has been amplified over the past year, it needs to be sustained.

"Yes, people are talking about it. But it's always been there. It's been the experiences for so many, it's robbing people, families of their human dignity for no reason other than how race is looked upon, how your ethnicity is valued in society," she said.

She's calling on Calgarians ask themselves how they are being anti-racist.

"What are you actively encouraging in terms of including people and stopping racist behaviour, whether it's at your own dinner table, or in your workplaces? Or even at the school that your children attend?

"Because racism is everywhere. It's in the way we treat people, it's in the policies, it's in our curriculum, it's in places that need to be actively resisted and disrupted."

Aujla-Bhular and Clearsky were encouraged to see the election of Jyoti Gondek in October, someone they believe will be a strong advocate for the committee's work.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek voted against a police request for additional funding in November 2021. At the time, she said the Calgary Police Service wasn't making enough progress on equity, diversity and inclusion policies. (City of Calgary)

But with one "woman of colour in a position of leadership," they are tempering their expectations. They say the patterns of leadership in everything from corporate offices to schools need to change.

"That collective whole is what's going to drive the change, not just one single person," said Aujla-Bhullar.

The committee will have a busy year ahead. It meets once a month and is working toward an anti-racism and implementation plan. 

Pace of change frustrating

Clearsky, who is also a member of the city's Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee, says it's more important to be a part of the discussion and to advocate for change, rather than sit on the sidelines. But she says the pace of that change can be frustrating.

"We keep talking and talking and talking and it just seems as though, I don't know how much more can we say," she said.

"We need to deal with this right now. We need to deal with the racism because it's not going to go away."

But she will continue to speak out to share her knowledge and experience and is encouraging more people to join the conversation or start talking about ways to end racism. 

Aujla-Bhullar agrees.

"I think a message for Calgary is that we are here. We are working as hard and as diligently as we can. And I think many Calgarians would see and agree that this work is an uphill battle," she said.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.