Pushing back against institutional racism

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Marginalized groups need to work together to raise awareness and push back against institutionalized racism. That was a central message heard by hundreds of people who crowded into a Concordia University conference room in Montreal February 7 to hear a panel discussion on “The Nature of Institutional Racism” in Montreal and the province of Quebec.

Panelists included the co-founder of Montreal Immigrant Workers Centre, Eric Shragge, McGill Assistant Psychiatry Professor Dr. Myrna Lashley, the co-president of the Association of Secular Muslims and Arabs in Quebec, Haroun Bouazzi, and Centre for Research Action on Race Relations director Fo Niemi. The talk was moderated by Lachlan Madill, an Indigenous journalist and television host on MaTV’s Urban Nations.

They shared both personal encounters of racism and discrimination and the ways they have mobilized individuals and organizations to fight back against the underrepresentation of racial minorities in Canada’s institutions.


Haroun Bouazzi, Fo Niemi and Eric Shragge

Bouazzi spoke to issues with police that contribute to racism in Quebec. “The Quebec City mosque where we saw such a horrible thing happen last week, when there was the head [of a pig] put at the door, police said ‘It’s not a hate crime,’” launched Bouazzi. “They never give us the numbers, and how can we trust the numbers they give us? At every level, numbers, profiling and actually protecting these people who are fighting racism, they are part of the problem.”

Collective action was a major theme of the evening, with all panelists stressing that marginalized groups need to cooperate to push back against institutionalized racism in the labour market, government services, law enforcement agencies, academic institutions and the justice system. Indigenous peoples, racial minorities, feminists, LGBTQ community members and mainstream Canadians who understand the realities faced by minorities, all need to plan, mobilize and stand together in order to see sustainable change.

“By organizing we can actually win,” said Shragge.

Lashley shared her experiences of firsthand discrimination as a young black woman: being refused entry into a Miami hotel and asked to leave a beach in Key West by a waiter because “there had been complaints.” While she says things have improved since she first moved to Canada and studied in the Unites States, there is still much work to be done.

“We often think about institutionalized racism as pertaining to a physical institution,” she said. “We are the institutionalized racism. Every time we don’t stand up, every time we turn away and say ‘it’s your problem, it’s not mine’, every time we see someone being harassed and we hold our heads down and walk away, we become part of that institutionalized behaviour.”

When Niemi took to the microphone he addressed racial exclusion and under-representation of people of colour in Canada’s justice system.

“We have at this moment five black judges and zero Aboriginal judges out of more than 550 judges at the federal and provincial jurisdiction, including municipal court,” he said. “That’s not normal, and that’s not Quebec and Canada 2017. Once we change that, the change will trickle down into the system.”

moderator Lachlan and his wife Carolyn

moderator Lachlan Madill with his wife Karoline Benoit

Shortly into the question period, the audience was reminded why events like these are still necessary. A young man named Normand used his time on the microphone to accuse the invited guests of spewing propaganda, not sharing any facts and to state that minorities need the permission of the white majority before mobilizing for change.

While several audience members were visibly upset and organizers politely asked him to leave, the panelists invited discourse and cooler heads prevailed. Niemi shared statistics on white Canadians of ethnic descent who are still excluded in many ways and Shragge reminded Normand that Canada was colonized “by the barrel of a gun.” Lashley also gave Normand a hug and a “God bless you” on her way out, before offering him the gift basket she received for participating in the panel.

“The citizenry need to see themselves reflected at all levels,” said Lashley, when asked how we can move forward to facilitate inclusion and participation for minorities. “The fact is, that unless you see yourself reflected it doesn’t give you the impetus you need to go forward, it doesn’t send a message that there is a place for you at the table.”

Thank you to Raymond Blackned for inviting the Nation to attend this event and for collaborating with classmates Khyra Abdelmoumen, Cassandra D’Errico, Nancy Ibrahim and Hugo Seanosky to plan, organize and coordinate the panel discussion.

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