Colour is not a crime: Calgary’s silent racism problem

This article discusses acts of racialized violence and language. It may be triggering to some users. If you require support, resources will be listed at the bottom of this article.

George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. His death sparked a wave of global demonstrations and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. People across the US and Canada marched in protest against police brutality and racial discrimination. 

Here in Alberta, as in many provinces, the perception that Canada doesn’t have a racism problem persists. According to some, police brutality against marginalized people is an issue exclusive to the US, and racial discrimination is non-existent. Rex Murphy, a well-known Canadian commentator and author, even wrote a column claiming that “Canada is not a racist country.”

But racism happens here too.

In communities across Alberta, racially-charged encounters are far from uncommon. A rally that was organized for the BLM movement in Innisfail was postponed after racist comments were posted online.

Last month, in Edmonton, a man was criminally charged after making a racist rant against an Asian woman, where he told her to “get the f—ck out of Canada,” and performed a Nazi salute. 

Calgary, Alberta’s largest city, was even the subject of a CBC documentary about police brutality.

The documentary, titled Above the Law, shared the story of Godfred Addai-Nyamekye, a Black Calgary resident who was racially profiled and assaulted by police who left him stranded in the freezing cold, wearing nothing but a t-shirt and sweatpants. 

To bring awareness to instances of racially motivated violence, Albertans have taken to sharing their encounters online. 

On July 18, a man named Justin Williams was arrested after an Instagram video went viral, showing him spitting on Jessica Lau, an Asian-Canadian woman, while biking in Calgary. In the video, Williams can be heard calling Lau a racial slur typically used against people of Chinese descent.

On July 23, Jeremiah Odoko, a Black man living in Calgary, shared a video on his Twitter page. In it, a person who appears to be white says to Odoko “Yo, you f—ing ni—a, dab me up.” 

While racism is not a new problem, it took a global pandemic for many Albertans to notice these issues in their own communities, explains Adam Massiah, CEO of The United Black People’s Allyship (UBPA), an activist group in Calgary.

Because COVID-19 shut down businesses and facilities at the same time as George Floyd’s murder, Massiah believes that “people finally started to look at the issues that exist.”

“[It took] no sports, no bars, no clubs, no school, no movie theatres, none of that, and the tragic death of a Black male to be played [repeatedly] on people’s social media and TVs because that’s all they had at the time,” he told The Pigeon in an interview.

Despite this new widespread awareness, Canada has a long history of racism. The country was founded on colonialism and genocide, built on the backs of Chinese labourers, and continues to disproportionately incarcerate racialized people.

For many of Calgary’s marginalized residents, this history is all too present still.

Gary Yip was born in the 1950s in Saskatchewan to a Chinese-Canadian father and a Cree mother. He attended an elementary school of around 200 students, where he was one of three non-white children. 

His parents elected not to teach him either of their native languages, because, according to Yip, “being different targeted you.” 

“In the ’50s and ’60s, diversity was not as pervasive, nor were people as enlightened as they are today,” Yip said. “I found myself in fights [at school] every day because I wasn’t willing to turn the other cheek.” 

Yip is a member of Calgary’s Woodcliff United Church. Canada’s churches, including the Anglican Church and the United Church, were guilty of perpetrating many of the abuses inflicted on Indigenous children who attended Canada’s residential schools—facilities established to assimilate Indigenous children into colonial culture—that resulted in a legacy of generational trauma.

Yip remembers a conversation he had with some members of his church group eight years ago at the peak of the Indigenous social justice movement, Idle no More.

The volunteer-led movement was created to oppose and protest the exploitation of resources and Indigenous lands in North America.

“Why are they blocking bridges?” he remembers his group asking. “Who do they think they are? Why do they believe they can do these things?”

He recalled their use of the word “they” in particular, which he felt set the conversation up to be divisive.

“When [people] use the word ‘they’, that’s an ‘us [versus] them’ conversation,” he said. 

Yip disclosed to his group that his mother was Cree, and that he found their use of the word ‘they,’ “disturbing and unsettling.” 

He asked the group what they knew about the Indian Act, and the far-reaching trauma that the residential school system caused Indigenous communities. The group also asked him to share his perspective and knowledge of the Idle No More movement, and the Indigenous experience in Canada. 

“The conversation immediately changed,” said Yip.

“I was proud of them, that they were able to switch the conversation, and become aware that even in their language, they were already, from a systemic side, cultivating more racism.” 

He later brought in a friend with a PhD in Canadian historical studies to speak to his church group and help them better understand Indigenous issues in Canada. 

“Afterwards, many of the men and women from my church who had heard my friend speak were crying, and admitted they never knew, or never considered, why we have some of the social issues we face,” said Yip. 

Through this education, Yip’s church group realized that they had been unaware of their role in a system which benefits them while oppressing others.

A lack of knowledge and awareness perpetuates racist assumptions and behaviours. However, many formally educated people have enforced systems of racism, too. Without change on a systems level, in our cities, laws, and legislation, education will only get us so far.

Black Lives Matter rally in Calgary, Alta. on June 1, 2020.

From July 7 to 9, 2020, the Calgary city council held a public hearing forum aimed at combating racism and discrimination in the city. 

During the Calgary City Council hearing, police brutality was heavily discussed, and while the Calgary Police Service (CPS) was not present, they posted a Tweet explaining their absence.

Even though the CPS believed their presence may have been controversial or unwelcome, some respondents felt the police should have been there—out of uniform—to gain a better understanding of local and institutional issues.

Massiah spoke at the hearing, where he was praised by many attendees, including Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. 

Nenshi, who became Calgary’s first Muslim mayor in 2010, has been a vocal supporter of anti-racism movements in the city. However, he has been publicly criticized for a lack of concrete action towards improving Calgary’s systemic racism problem.

Although the council ultimately agreed to “acknowledge, recognize, and condemn” racism in the city, the hearing was held using the council’s traditional public hearing regulations, where everyone was only given five minutes to speak. 

Many felt that it was unfair to ask people to sum up years of trauma in just five minutes.

While some said that the hearing was necessary and long overdue, others—including Shuana Porter, the UBPA’s founder—criticized it. 

“What you have done today is performative,” she told the council during the hearing. “It is a formality; it is you checking a box. You haven’t helped anyone.” 

“What has taken place in this room today is exactly what you’re asking people to talk about […] We’re scratching the surface. This is not helping; this is not fixing [anything].”

Massiah told The Pigeon that the hearing alone was proof of Calgary’s racism problem.

“If you listen to the hundreds of people that came forward and testified, to explain in-depth stories, and rehash their trauma to our political leaders, [you’ll see] that the evidence is there. It’s blatantly there,” he said.

“The people that don’t believe that racism exists are generally people of privilege. A lot of people don’t care because they don’t have to care.”

Azra Tursic, a Calgary resident and local activist, also spoke at the hearing, but says that her voice, as a white-passing individual, should not have been prioritized. 

“That entire process […] was an example of systemic racism,” she said. “I don’t think that city council understood what it meant for someone to get up and speak about their experiences.” 

In the days following the death of George Floyd, many protests were organized across Calgary. One of those rallies targeted the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) for its minimal inclusion of topics surrounding marginalization and racial injustice in its curriculum.

“In the past two months, I’ve seen horrific examples of how behind this specific city is, compared to, let’s say, our neighbour, Vancouver,” said Tursic. 

“Calgary has a huge issue with blatant racism. Non-Black people here have no issues throwing the n-word around, and people will outwardly discriminate against someone who has a Muslim name.” 

Tursic, who attended 12 years of grade school through the CBE, said she has witnessed discrimination in the school system for years.

“You’ll see that everything is filtered through this white narrative,” she said, referring to the textbooks used in the CBE curriculum. “It indoctrinates people into believing a certain way.”

Tursic added that most of her education about racism and history was self-directed.

“Until I did my own research, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with Christopher Columbus,” she said. “I had to go seek that information for myself and do my own research.”

Tursic believes that one problem with the way Canada’s oppressive history is being taught is that those who create school curricula are often from a privileged group themselves.

“They’ll teach it to you, but it’ll be a white person teaching it to you,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t know what oppression is […] shouldn’t be teaching it.”

“This is how you maintain systemic racism.”

Number of people killed by police, by race. Graph courtesy of: CBC News

Data published by the CBC shows that while Black and Indigenous people make up a much smaller percentage of Canada’s population, they are more likely to be victims of police brutality than any other ethnicity.

Yip has had firsthand experience witnessing police targeting Indigenous people in Calgary. He watched as officers profiled two Indigenous boys at a Wendy’s in southwest Calgary, about three years ago.

“A young Aboriginal man came running into the restaurant, asking for help,” said Yip. “The [manager said] to him, ‘Nope, you can’t come in here, you’ve got to leave.’” 

The boy claimed that someone was being assaulted, so Yip went outside to investigate. He saw a group of young men swarming the boy’s friend. 

After separating the group, Yip did what he thought was right and called the police to report the incident. He recalled five or six police cars pulling into the parking lot, where he stood with the two boys. 

Yip remembered seeing the policemen’s hands on their holsters.

“This doesn’t feel right,” he recalled thinking.

After speaking with an officer, Yip was asked to step away from the two boys.

Another officer approached the boys and asked them to put their backpacks down, empty their pockets, and stand over by the police car. He recalled the officers having accusatory tones.

“I’m going, ‘Woah, this doesn’t seem right,’” said Yip. “You’re asking the victims of an assault to empty their pockets?” 

Yip asked the police officer to explain why the boys were being detained.

The officer responded by telling Yip “he [didn’t] know [what was] going on,” and that “he [didn’t] understand what [they were] dealing with.” 

Yip filed a formal complaint, but he said nothing came of it. 

Massiah has experienced the effects of racial discrimination firsthand.

While a student at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Massiah was involved in an on-campus incident with a security guard. He had just finished performing in a concert and returned to a campus building to retrieve his keys.

“I left my keys in a room on campus where we were practising before we went on,” remembered Massiah. He approached the building door, which is locked after hours, and asked security to let him in. 

After speaking with Massiah, the security guard on duty looked at Massiah and said to him, “So you’re the one that wrote ‘f—k the police’ on the board.” 

The guard was referring to a wall-mounted writing board in the room. Neither Massiah nor anyone he knew had defaced it.

He told The Pigeon there were multiple people present at the time that he and his group were in the room.

“It could’ve been anyone,” Massiah recalled.

After a back-and-forth dialogue between the two, the guard opened the security gate, letting Massiah through. Massiah followed him, assuming that the guard would lead him to the room where he’d left his keys.

Instead, he found himself outside the security office.

“We got to the front of the security office, he told me to stand outside the door, and I watched him pick up a cell phone […] dial 911, and describe a young, Black male trespassing on Mount Royal School property,” said Massiah. “I was shocked and baffled.”

“I figured the safest thing to do for myself was to pull out my phone and record what was happening,” he said. When the security guard saw what Massiah was doing, he covered his name tag with his hand. 

When the police eventually arrived, Massiah said the guard accused him of several more acts, including punching holes in a classroom wall, burning the carpet, and stealing a computer.

One of the police officers said to Massiah that the incident was turning into a “he said, she said” situation, but Massiah suggested they go to the room and investigate.

The officers found nothing wrong. 

Later on, the security guard filed a formal complaint to Mount Royal University, making Massiah a suspect in an ongoing criminal case. Because of this, he could not register for classes the following semester, ultimately delaying his graduation. 

These stories, opinions, and experiences shared with The Pigeon are only a small fraction of the bigger picture of racism in Calgary.

There is a lot more that needs to be done in the city to truly commit to anti-racism. Even though the Calgary City Council agreed to acknowledge, recognize, and condemn racism in the city, their plan of action to appoint an Anti-Racism committee doesn’t come into effect until Oct. 2020, three months after their systemic racism public hearing was held.

Changing the deeply ingrained systems of racism in our society will take time, but without these issues being prioritized by those in power, we may never get close.

Omar Sherif is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary. He is currently studying journalism at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

For some introductory anti-racism resources, visit The University of Waterloo’s page. Crisis lines and 24/7 help options can be found at The LifeLine Canada

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