Bold plans needed to end racial discrimination

Canadians joined the international community this past week in recognition of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We observe this day in remembrance of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, where police in the South African township of Sharpeville opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting apartheid.

The theme declared by the UN for this year is “Promoting tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combating racial discrimination.”

The Canadian federal 2018 budget set aside $23 million over two years aimed to form a new national anti-racism plan informed by disaggregated data collection and cross-Canada consultations on the way forward to combat systemic racism.

This is a monumental moment for Canada and this is a reckoning of our institutions — one where we take an honest look at how they were built, and in what ways they were designed to negatively impact some of our citizens.

There will be attention seekers who look to hijack this discussion; my interest will be in those who are constructive and respectful within this important conversation. Denial that steps need to be taken only hinders our ability to move forward.

There is no right way to fight systemic racism. But, the only wrong approach is to go on pretending it doesn’t exist so we don’t have to hear about it. There are too many Canadians living it to ignore that these experiences are valid.

Ontario and Nova Scotian provincial leaders have been steadfast in their commitment to innovative solutions to combating racism, and specifically anti-Black racism in their provinces and public institutions.

As municipalities, provincial governments and federal representatives move forward, I hope that best practices will be shared.

Keeping in mind that the experiences will be different in every local community, we will benefit from this national sharing of best practices. There won’t be any one-size-fits-all solution, but the dialogue will help those newer to the conversation navigate the complex issues at hand.

As we embark on this national discussion we must also actively address those timely systematic challenges that require immediate attention.

All eyes were on the Senate — Canada’s chamber for sober second thought — this week as Bill-C45 was debated, putting cannabis legalization at risk.

Academics, advocates, and legal experts have provided excellent research and thoughtful commentary on the need for amnesty to be proactively pursued alongside legalization.

The disproportionality of the communities criminalized by simple possession of cannabis is a powerful reminder of the work ahead in reforming our policing and justice systems.

Retired officers who argued for heavier sentences now reap financial benefits within an industry currently closed to those they criminalized. The numbers tell a social justice and economic story that is a stain on our democracy. We should be aggressively seeking a proactive pardoning system to wipe these slates clean.

This is emotionally exhausting and draining work. I have an immense amount of respect for the organizations and individuals who have been in this work deeply for many years. It seems speaking out on these issues can make one a lightening rod for more hatred steeped in racism.

In his statement marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Prime Minister Trudeau said:

“We will work harder to emphasize the stories and contributions of all Canadians, through initiatives recognizing the International Decade for People of African Descent. And we will always stand up to racism, xenophobia, and hate in all its forms.

Despite the progress we have made, the fight against racial discrimination is far from over. We cannot be complacent. It’s up to each of us to make sure Canada lives up to its promise — for everyone.”

There are no political points earned here, mostly criticism by way of disagreement on the words and approaches chosen and the money spent.

It takes backbone to lead through issues as complex and emotionally charged as these. I hope our political leaders will continue to press forward consulting, planning and acting on these challenges.

This isn’t a conversation about whether or not there is racism in Canada and Canadian institutions. This is a debate about how we can be the boldest in addressing it.

And the result, if we do it well, is a better Canada.

Tiffany Gooch is a Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics.

(Published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, March 25)