Activist Iman Bukhari battles racism in Canada
Calgary woman shares stories in order to build understanding
In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city.
After moving from Pakistan to Canada, Iman Bukhari experienced racism as an 11-year-old. But that experience contributed to the work she now does as an activist and documentary filmmaker, helping show others the reality of race relations in this country.
Her father chose to move to Canada, as opposed to the United States, because he believed Canada embodied the qualities of diversity and equality.
"The first time racist things were said to me, I was fairly young and didn't understand why a kid was calling me a terrorist. It was right after 9/11."
When Bukhari started school in Canada, her teacher knew she spoke English, so she wasn't treated any differently.
A couple of months later though, a new boy joined the class and she was assigned to be his buddy. He spoke Punjabi, while she spoke Urdu. As hard as she tried, she couldn't explain to the boy what the teacher was saying.
"Eventually I got embarrassed and told the teacher that we don't speak the same language. He only has the same skin colour as me. I'm pretty sure the teacher felt embarrassed, too, but maybe he learned something out of it," she says.
The lack of awareness surrounding race issues is one reason why Bukhari founded and became CEO of the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation, based in Calgary.
"For me personally, I started seeing a lot of racism since 9/11. I have always felt that the reason for it was because of people's lack of education. I wanted to be part of that movement, but from a grassroots perspective," she says.
"The Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation works to promote multiculturalism and mitigate racism through education and arts. We are all volunteers that do this because we believe in the cause."
Among its successes is a film Bukhari produced in 2016 called YYC Colours, a documentary about racism in Calgary.
"I wanted to make a piece about race that related to Calgary. I wanted it to be a piece that can be seen by many people and hope it will bring change and spark awareness," Bukhari says.
The film took about a year and a half to produce, consisting of over 100 different interviews. The process of finding people who've experienced racism was fairly easy, she says.
I am happy to help improve it and make it a more diverse and welcoming country because I think this is a role for all citizens in a country to do.- Iman Bukhari
Hearing their stories was not, and neither was finding people willing to publicly share them.
"The concept of 'race-card' is thrown around so much now and people don't feel comfortable sharing their experiences because of others' hate," says Bukhari.
"There were examples such as bosses throwing around racist jokes, being physically violent, using racial terms, as well as being beat up on transit or being spit on or having your scarf pulled off; lots of examples of people being threatened."
Bukhari says the overall response to the film was good. However, she says, "I did get some negative backlash online from racist trolls and some hate mail, but that kind of stuff doesn't bother me too much now as I've developed a thicker skin."
In fact, Bukhari says her organization receives online threats on a weekly basis — everything from racism to xenophobia to homophobic comments.
She cites one example from the foundation's Anti-Racism Festival last year.
"One white supremacist group sent us a few emails and shared on Facebook that they would come out and ruin our event. We had the police involved in that and thankfully nothing bad happened," she says.
"It's not easy work but we're happy to do this because it's needed, and we also love this country and want it to continue improving."
Better every day
Bukhari has seen that improvement firsthand.
"I've had a lot of teachers and HR people message me or greet me saying the film helped them put things in perspective and they're starting to change things," she says.
In the meantime, Bukhari is already working on her next project, a series of spoken word videos from local artists that deals with the subject of race.
Although Bukhari is aware her kind of activism will always be needed, she's happy to be doing it in Canada.
"I think Canada is a work in progress. No country, similar to any person, will ever be perfect," she says.
"I do believe Canada is a great nation and I am a proud Canadian. There is no other place I would feel this comfortable in. I am happy to help improve it and make it a more diverse and welcoming country because I think this is a role for all citizens in a country to do."
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