Anti-racism advocates skeptical that N.L. government committee will lead to real change

Two Newfoundland and Labrador anti-racism advocates say a new ministerial committee meant to address racism in the province needs to show a stronger commitment to change.

Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador co-chair says it's time for stronger action

Jennifer Selby, left, and Sobia Shaikh are the co-leads of Addressing Islamophobia and are both involved in the Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Two Newfoundland and Labrador anti-racism advocates say a new ministerial committee meant to address racism in the province lacks the tools needed to make concrete change.

Sobia Shaikh, the co-chair of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador and a Memorial University social work professor, said representatives from ARC-NL were disappointed by their meeting with the committee last week.

She said the committee was receptive to concerns, but the members did not name specific actions the government was taking to address racism in Newfoundland and Labrador. Shaikh also noted that while the committee is doing public consultations, there are no plans for a final report.

"We have no idea what the plans are going forward," she said in an interview with CBC News. "We're very concerned about that."

The committee, created last summer, is made up of Immigration Minister Gerry Byrne, Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation Minister Lisa Dempster, Justice Minister John Hogan and Education Minister Tom Osborne.

According to its mandate, the committee will hold consultations with individuals and organizations regarding measures that could be taken to address racism in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, the mandate does not specifically state what those measures might be.

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In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Department of Immigration, Population Growth and Skills said the committee has met with 27 groups so far, and is taking immediate steps to address issues.

The spokesperson said those actions include developing an anti-racism public education campaign, creating intercultural competency training for public employees and working to remove barriers for recognition of foreign professional training and qualifications.

"As Minister Byrne has stated repeatedly and publicly, the intent of the ministerial committee on anti-racism is not to produce a final report," said the spokesperson. "This approach has been conveyed during all consultation meetings the Committee has held."

The committee is in its consultations phase, but Shaikh said it isn't clear what the committee will do with the information they gather, especially since it has no plans to create a report or list of recommendations.

"What is the point of these committees if there's not going to be any sort of accountability?" she asked.

Byrne said last month the committee decided against creating a report in favour of addressing problems more quickly. He said the committee had, for example, connected an individual with Memorial University leadership after they complained about racial bias in applications for MUN's professional schools.

A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration said the committee will provide regular updates on its work, including findings from the current round of consultations.

More details needed

In a Twitter thread about the meeting, ARC-NL said representatives from the group asked for some specific actions, including expanding MCP coverage to more migrant workers, extending voting rights to all residents, developing anti-hate campaigns, and creating a paid anti-racism advisory committee.

Shaikh said the advisory committee would add much-needed expertise to government action on anti-racism.

She said members of the committee were interested in hearing stories about experiences of racism. Shaikh said while it's important to share those stories, they don't necessarily lead to changes in policies and practices.

"Storytelling doesn't really make change if those people are … not at the table, making policy," she said.

Jennifer Selby is a religious studies professor and a co-lead of Addressing Islamophobia, a Memorial University project aimed at countering Islamophobia and discrimination in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Immigration Minister Gerry Byrne, one of the co-chairs of the ministerial committee, said last month that the group is not creating a report because it plans to take actions against racism immediately. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Selby said the project, has received a lacklustre response from the government, and a 2019 meeting about the recommendations from the project didn't yield significant change. However, she was pleased when the group was asked to participate in consultations. 

"We have been kind of lobbying them for four years and only in the last six months have they expressed a kind of interest," she said.

Selby said the group brought up concerns about the consultation process, including the fact that the online consultation portal is available only in English.

Selby said Addressing Islamophobia suggested a more wide-reaching approach from the committee, involving other areas of government like the Department of Health. She said she's cautiously optimistic about what could come out of the committee.

"Now we'll just see if there's any money that can be attached to it," she said.  

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