Two steps forward, one step back.
That is how long-time Indigenous advocate Lewis Cardinal describes Edmonton’s progress – and often lack thereof – in creating a sense of “belonging” within the city for its Indigenous residents.
The topic comes up in the wake of the unprovoked murder of George Floyd, a black man, in the hands of Minneapolis police.
Led by the Black Lives Matter movement, the incident has galvanized awareness of injustice to Americans (and Canadians) no matter their colour. They have realized racism is alive in North American culture … and a younger generation has resolved to improve matters.
Much as we would like to think otherwise – as Cardinal says, progress has been haltingly made – racism is still evident in this city, happening to the black and Indigenous communities. This column is primarily about the Indigenous experience, but just as applicable to the black community.
“George Floyd may be a tipping point (on renewed racism awareness),” says indigenous Edmonton city councillor Aaron Paquette. “We have woken up to the fact there is a long-standing imbalance here, staring us in the face. But we are so used to the status quo, it has ceased to be an issue.”
Racism itself, cautions Cardinal, is a “deep and complex thing. It can be deeply but unconsciously engrained into an individual’s family or circle of friends.”
“People are uncomfortable talking about racism,” adds Paquette. “As much for fear of being called racist.”
So what have we done that we can be proud of, what have we not done, what can be done?
The City of Edmonton – city hall – is our litmus test.
The police department, as always, is the most scrutinized. While there are no official quotas, the department works diligently toward reflecting the city’s ethnic/female makeup in its ranks. In December 2017, of its 1,800 officers, about 19 per cent were women, 8 per cent visible minorities and 6 per cent Indigenous. The new police chief, Dale McFee, is Metis.
Disappointing to both Cardinal and Paquette is the lumping of all indigenous and visible minorities into a single, bureaucratic Community Advisory Council to advise the police chief on diversity/racism issues. That council is further divided into eight “community liaison committees,” including the First Nations and black communities.
“It’s about trust,” says Cardinal, advocating for an Indigenous-only advisory group. “To have access to leadership, to directly advise as issues come up.”
But why give one “minority” group a higher priority over others? “Take a look around,” says Paquette. “What group has the biggest need? Which group has the highest percentage of incarceration, of homelessness, of children taken from their homes?”
Paquette cites symbolic civic gestures acknowledging Indigenous concerns: space for Indigenous ceremonies, Metis and Treaty flags at city hall, the land acknowledgment that opens all city hall meetings, Indigenous-sensitivity training sessions for city staff, “but one weekend course is not going to do the trick,” comments Cardinal.
Through the lens of the George Floyd murder, are symbolic gestures enough?
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released 94 recommendations after the residential schools’ inquiry, to all three levels of government,” says Paquette. “Everybody was so enthused. Five years later, four or five have been acted upon. The other 90? Nothing happened.”
Ultimately, it is not about fancy declarations or big political promises. It is about long-term delivery. “It’s not about the flames now burning,” says Paquette, “They inevitably die down. It’s keeping the embers alive, of seeing steady, deliberate improvement.”
Cardinal echoes Paquette. “incremental change, good persistent communication. If we do not keep up the pressure, things will slip back to what they were – that’s human nature.”