'We are not being complacent': New Hamilton groups take anti-racism stand

Hundreds of Hamiltonians have shown up at a handful of gatherings in recent weeks to say they’re not OK with recent incidents of racism in their city.

250 people attend anti-racism night: 'It’s a reason for me to have hope,' organizer says

Anti-Racism Action Initiative drew about 250 people to the Hamilton Central Library for a discussion on gentrification, policing and other issues. (Sheldon Steele)

Hundreds of Hamiltonians have shown up at a handful of gatherings in recent weeks to say they're not OK with recent incidents of racism in their city.

The incidents include: 

A woman who felt targeted because of her race in the grocery store line. 

A crew of young people allegedly yelling racial slurs at a group of black kids.

A cab driver being called n--ger by a passenger.

"There's been so many things that we've heard in the media and it's been very painful seeing our society change for the worse," said Sarah Adjekum, who recently graduated with a Master's in social work from McMaster University.

Adjekum and another McMaster student, Sarah Jama, organized an event late last month called the Anti-Racism Action Initiative that drew about 250 people to the Hamilton Central Library downtown. 

"Folks see that there are changes that need to happen," Adjekum said. "It's a reason for me to have hope."

Meanwhile, a collection of leaders from Hamilton's various African and Caribbean cultural groups have banded together to keep each other informed and speak with a unified voice from the black community on local issues, especially about racism and discrimination.

There's been so many things that we've heard in the media and it's been very painful seeing our society change for the worse.- Sarah Adjekum, co-organizer, Anti-Racism Action Initiative

More than half of the attendees at the library event raised their hands when asked if they're under 30 years old.

"We're the ones bearing the brunt of racism in the city," Jama said. "Youth have tons of experiences and it's important to have that perspective."

'Hamiltonians just want to be prepared'

The gathering spawned a list of demands to officials at organizations like local school districts, the city, the police and McMaster University. Participants broke into small groups to tackle topics like anti-Indigenous racism, gentrification and hate crimes.

McMaster student and anti-racism activist Sarah Jama addresses a gathering called the Anti-Racism Action Initiative. (Sheldon Steele)

A few of the group's demands, outlined that night:

  • Hiring more minority police officers
  • Finally launching a promised anti-racism centre for the city
  • Including more about what constitutes a hate crime in school curricula
  • Funding to help protect businesses owned by people of colour

Longtime local anti-racism advocate Evelyn Myrie said she sees the community pushing back against what's happening in the U.S., what seems like an increase in hate crimes. 

"People are afraid that this could also present itself here more aggressively," she said.

"To me it's a preventative mode. Hamiltonians just want to be prepared. Let's be vigilant ahead of anything happening."

African and Caribbean Canadians, speaking with one voice

The other group started with dinner at co-chair Comfort Afari's house. 

Afari is a member of the Ghanaian community in Hamilton, and brought together about 25 people from the groups representing Gambia, Nigeria, Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti, Rwanda and others to talk about what they have in common. 

"It would be great for all of us to get together, for us to, as time goes on, form a more cohesive group to address, bigger issues, social and political issues," Afari said.  

The African Canadian Action Congress had its official launch late last month. The group aims to present a unified voice to speak to local issues in Hamilton. (Kobby Crabbe)

Their new group is called the African Canadian Action Congress. Among its top priorities is addressing discrimination and racism, Afari said.

"Particularly issues with the police and how, sometimes, they deal with people of African descent," Afari said.

Meeting with police chief postponed

She said the group scheduled a meeting with Deputy Chief Ken Weatherill, who served as acting chief earlier this year, but that meeting got postponed when Eric Girt was appointed chief.

Afari said the group wants to talk with Girt about interactions when police question and ask for identification from people who haven't necessarily done anything wrong. That practice is known as carding or street checks, and will be coming under new provincial rules in January.

Hamilton police data over five years showed 12 per cent of the people who are street checked were black, but black people only make up about 3 per cent of the population.

That means black residents were stopped at a disproportionate rate of three to four times the population.

"If people are being stopped for doing something wrong, that's not a problem," Afari said. "But if you are being stopped just because you are black there's something seriously wrong with that."

'The numbers don't lie; the experiences don't lie'

Police have repeatedly said they don't stop people just because they're black. But Afari isn't satisfied with that answer.

"They can say all they want that they don't just stop people because they're black, but the numbers don't lie. The experiences don't lie," Afari said.

Flyers for the Anti-Racism Action Initiative. (Sheldon Steele)
"If it's established that certain groups of people are being stopped more than others, then they really need to look into why that is happening."

Leaders from both groups said the recent resurgence of interest in fighting racism is reason for optimism.

"It really gives me hope that the young people are taking strong leadership," Myrie said.

"It's sad that we're still at the level that we're talking about this issue, but on the other hand we are not being complacent about it."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett