Ottawa

Racism forum on the black experience in Ottawa draws big crowd

A capacity crowd gathered for a forum on Monday evening about the overt and subtle ways black people experience racism in Ottawa, and to discuss how to change that.

Forum draws 250 people to discuss and find solutions to racism experienced by black people in Ottawa

A forum on the racism black people face in Ottawa drew a capacity crowd of 250 people on Monday at Ottawa's City Hall. The event was organized by the City for All Women Initiative and the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership. (Kate Porter/CBC)

A capacity crowd gathered for a forum on Monday evening about the overt and subtle ways black people experience racism in Ottawa, and to discuss how to change that.

The event, organized by the City for All Women Initiative and the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership, was in the works even before Abdirahman Abdi died after a confrontation with police in late July.

Chelby Daigle said people have been experiencing racism in policing, hiring practices, the school system and society generally for decades.

She and other organizers saw momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and in Toronto as a way to get people talking about the issue locally.

Chelby Daigle, one of the organizers of the anti-racism forum, said the idea was to get people talking and working together to fight racism, especially in light of the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. (CBC)

'Come together'

"But we needed to take advantage of it in a way that's not so reactionary in terms of rallies and marches. It has to be about planning and organizing and more of a long-term, sustained effort to take action on these issues in our city," Daigle said.

So, she urged people at the forum to get to know one another and share experiences. 

Ottawa's black community has about 60,000 people, she said, and come from different backgrounds. Some are Canadians, others are immigrants. Some trace their roots to Somalia and Burundi in Africa, while others are from Haiti and Jamaica in the Caribbean.

"We actually have the numbers to be a political influence," Daigle told CBC. "We just often have not come together enough to do it."

Some deny racism exists in Canada

Priscilla Jabouin decided to spend a summery Monday evening inside Ottawa's city hall because she said it was time for people to finally start talking.

For too long, people have been shrugging off small incidents, she said, or denying that racism exists in a country that prides itself on being multicultural.

She sees subtle things, whether it's a black person who's served second when he or she was first in line, or an insensitive comment.

"There are lots of assumptions, sometimes, that we're not from Canada. I'm born and raised here. It's the only country I know," said Jabouin.

Fatimah Jackson-Best, meanwhile, has been surprised by overt racism. She said she has heard racial slurs, including the 'n' word, more than once since moving to Ottawa recently.

"Honestly, I hadn't heard it used in years," said Jackson-Best. "I was so taken aback."

More race-based data needed

As for how black people might be treated differently by institutions, one key will be to collect more race-based data to turn anecdotes into something measurable, said Hindia Mohamoud, director of the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership.

That includes statistics about how black people fare in education and health, their access to social services, how many people take on leadership roles, and their interactions with police and the justice system.

Simply getting the discussion started is a big step, said Mohamoud.

"We've learned that the biggest hurdle we have in our efforts to build equity and inclusion in our community is a denial that racism even exists," Mohamoud said.

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