Ottawa’s lone black councilor believes a new process of public consultation could put the city on track to end systemic racism at the municipal level and improve the lives of the city’s black and racialized residents.
The City of Ottawa has launched an online survey and a series of community planning sessions to inform the foundations of its Anti-Racism Secretariat, a municipal body that will seek to identify racial discrimination in the city’s policies, practices, and community services. Recommendations from the consultation will be returned to the City Council before the end of the year.
Although the city is among many Canadian institutions that take a hard look at its role in systemic racism in the wake of last summer’s mass protests against black racism in response to the assassination of George Floyd, the roots of the anti-racism secretariat trace back to an incident in Rideau-Rockcliffe Ward in 2019 .
Black artists say they have experienced changes in their industry since George Floyd protested
Rawlson King had just been elected the city’s first black councilor ever in April 2019. After the first weeks in office, he says there was “great excitement” in the black community to see one of their own take a seat at the council table.
But a month after his election, a black family in his department was shocked to see the N-word spray painted on their garage door.
The community gathered after that incident, King tells Global News and decided that something good should come out of it.
In the pursuit of systemic change, community members met with the acting Chief of Police in Ottawa and helped spur the return of the hate crime unit.
Memorial Day in Quebec mosque attack a first step, experts say
King also started working on setting up a secretariat against racism, for which he secured funding in the 2020 budget. He says the secretariat itself is a result of community-led leadership in response to recurring problems such as the spray-painting incident in his department, but directed at city institutions more than individual bad actors.
“They recognized that there would always be individual racism. But the key that they really could not tolerate is systemic racism when dealing with their government, ”King says.
Since the end of January, public consultations have taken the form of virtual sessions divided with Ottawa communities that have traditionally been marginalized or targets of hate crime, such as blacks or Asian residents.
New Ottawa Black youth initiative looks set to turn movement into long-term change
The meetings continued this week with a consultation with the Jewish community on Monday and a session with Muslim residents that came up on Friday. A future session will specifically consult with indigenous communities.
King says the goal of these consultations is not to find out what the problems are in these societal-systemic inequalities and discrimination have been well researched in the last 30, 40 years, he says.
Rather, it is a chance for the city to hear directly from residents about how its services can improve and better serve the needs of individual communities.
For example, questions about employment. While 25 percent of Ottawa’s total population is racialized, only 12.5 percent of the city’s workforce is non-white.
King says hiring more blacks and natives and people of color to work in the city, especially in leadership roles, will help residents feel seen in their municipal services and again serve them better.
King himself is an example of the phenomenon, he says.
Although he was officially named the city council’s first liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations in June, he says he has largely served in that role since his election.
Proposed anti-racism role in the Ottawa Council does not go far enough, black activists say
Back in 2019, when he first took office, he says he regularly started hearing from black voters in constituencies across the city. When black residents wanted to talk to school board officials about children in their community facing higher deportation rates, it was King they would call to mediate the meeting.
“Representation is important. People felt safe calling me, ”he says.
But members of Ottawa’s black community and their allies do not always feel heard.
This has been the case at several meetings of the Ottawa Police Services Board since last summer, where delegations have often been interrupted for failing to comply with the narrow format of the current topic of discussion, be it the topic of anti-black violence, acute mental health response or the budget of the service.
Ottawa police officer found innocent in black man’s death
King, who joined the board during the fall, says OPSB’s restrictive mandate has hampered proper engagement. Therefore, he voted against the $ 13.2 million increase to the service’s budget in 2021 because he felt the board had not shown that it was listening to the needs of the community.
He said the board is considering “extraordinary measures” to better engage community members, including branching out to a mediating role.
“The tools are not as big as they should be,” he says. “I think there is work in the police board to experiment with innovation so we can improve types of engagement.”
Despite dents in the road at the Police Department, King is proud of his recent work in the city to improve the performance of racist residents.
Ottawa Public Health has worked closely with its partners as the Ottawa Local Immigrant Partnership in an effort to mitigate the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on marginalized residents, particularly in the black community. Tailored messages to individual communities can boost confidence in tests, vaccines and the health system in general, King says.
Financially, he also sees recognition at the municipal level that improving equity for disadvantaged residents can strengthen the city’s bottom line. At its Wednesday meeting this week, the City Council will consider a proposal calling for more social criteria to be added to its procurement strategy, a way to ensure that racialized business owners get a fair shot at the millions of dollars in contracts at stake as a part of the city’s COVID- 19 recovery efforts.
Black-owned companies lack support months after the George Floyd movement
King says he is particularly pleased to have these public consultations underway in earnest in and around Black History Month.
While noting the value of remembering the contributions of black Canadians, as well as the systemic oppression they have faced in Canada, he says that days, weeks and months to honor the past often do not spur conversations about the future.
He hopes Ottawa in this Black History month begins to look toward correcting the systemic racism that has marginalized black residents for centuries.
“I think it makes sense. I’m really happy that it’s happening now, ”he says.
’21 Black Futures’ artistic director talks about highlighting black creators from across Canada
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.