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Leadership needed to fight racism

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July 25, 2017

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Special to the Chronicle Journal

A few months ago, I visited Thunder Bay and had the opportunity to speak with members of the Indigenous community. Community members told me about their concerns related to policing and child welfare, trafficking of Indigenous women and girls, and everyday racism in almost every facet of their lives including employment, housing, healthcare and retail. Most strikingly, people talked about being “garbaged” – literally having garbage thrown at them while walking down the street, all because of their Indigenous ancestry. I brought these concerns to the leaders that I met later in the day, including the Mayor and police.

The concerns that people raised with me are consistent with Statistics Canada data. In 2015, Thunder Bay had by far the highest rate of police-reported hate crimes in Canada and the highest incidence of reported hate crimes against Indigenous peoples. And this does not take into account the estimated two-thirds of hate crimes that are never reported to police.

This data, recent Coroner’s Inquests, and media reports of Indigenous persons facing harassment and sometimes deadly violence have reinforced my own concern that Thunder Bay has failed to effectively deal with the reality of widespread racism – and that this failure starts at the top.

The current leadership crisis in Thunder Bay provides important insight into Thunder Bay’s recurring problems with racism. From my work across the province and internationally, I know that healing a community in crisis must start with local leaders. Whether they are elected officials, police chiefs, or even prominent citizens, leaders must set a tone of respect and zero tolerance for racism and discrimination. When leaders act, they can provide a powerful example that an entire community can emulate.

But, when leaders fail to stand up to widespread abuse and turn a blind eye to the most vulnerable people in their community, we see disastrous results. When a powerful voice in the community says racism isn’t a problem, it’s easy for people to do nothing. When a trusted leader says it’s “business as usual,” they silence and discredit the voices of people dealing with racism and discrimination and embolden those who seek to maintain the status quo at all costs.

And when the leadership default is to defend current practices without even attempting to look more closely at a problem, there is great potential for people to accept that racism and discrimination are just part of the normal fabric of the city or that solutions are elusive or impossible. Voids in leadership lead to voids in action, and serve to perpetuate the harm that vulnerable communities face.

Leadership is a potent weapon in the fight against racism. During this difficult time, I call on all people who call Thunder Bay home to demand that their leaders address racism head-on. Only with sustained leadership can we change the dialogue from denial and division to understanding and reconciliation.

Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.M
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission