As the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination approaches on March 21, an Alberta organization is campaigning all month long in an effort to educate and inspire local communities to work towards eliminating racism in the province.
Dubbed “March for Understanding,” the annual campaign hosted by the Centre for Race and Culture has grown from a one-day commemoration on March 21 to a month-long event that includes community events, celebrations, lectures, films, performances, workshops, art projects, and more, all in an effort to promote cross-cultural and racial understanding.
“[Racial discrimination] becomes no longer just something to think about on one day, but instead a series of community events over the whole month where people can explore racism in different ways—through art, education, and dialogue,” says Roxanne Felix-Mah, program manager at the Centre for Race and Culture.
Felix-Mah says Alberta does not necessarily have higher incidences of racism than other provinces, but with the influx of immigrants to the area in recent years, the need for racial awareness is heightened.
“When you have a booming economy it brings some of these [discrimination issues] to light quicker,” she says.
Alberta has attracted attention in recent years due to a seemingly strong presence of white supremacists in the province.
Neo-Nazi groups hold annual rallies in downtown Calgary, sometimes on March 21, and have been known to try to recruit new members through flyer/poster/Internet campaigns.
Last year, three members of the white power group Blood & Honour were charged after assaulting three visible minorities on Edmonton’s popular Whyte Avenue, and shouting racial slurs.
Felix-Mah says it’s easy to think of only these extreme examples as racism, but much more prevalent and damaging is the systemic racism and inequality that exists in Canada.
“There is a systemic inequity here, where some things in the system that we all accept and that we all think is normal, leads to greater inequity for individuals who have a different skin colour,” she says.
“I think that’s the real fear—that we just accept that. Those one-time events are easy to pick out and say ‘that’s racism,’ but those are actually the easy ones to identify and the easy ones to stop.”
Stephanie Molina, communications coordinator for the Centre for Race and Culture, notes that for every hate-motivated act in Alberta, there are many more efforts to encourage inclusion, diversity, and awareness.
“For the handful of white supremacists that might show up on March 21 to spread their message of hate, there’s hundreds of Albertans who are happy to publicly stand against that kind of hate and discrimination,” she says.
“I think that what’s more difficult for people to understand, is the subconscious, systemic, or institutionalized forms of racism that affect how people live.”
An Ongoing Issue
Molina adds that she often hears from people who think racism is not an issue today, or has disappeared, which makes March for Understanding that much more important.
“Many people say we live in a ‘post-racial society.’ Well, frankly, that isn’t true, unfortunately,” she says.
Statistics show racism continues to be a reality in Canada.
Canadian police services reported 1,473 hate crimes in 2009, up by 437 incidents, or 42 percent from the previous year. Many more crimes are also thought to go unreported.
Over half of police-reported hate crimes in 2009 were motivated by race or ethnicity. The largest increase involved hate crimes against Arabs or West Asians, which doubled from 37 incidents in 2008 to 75 in 2009.
Blacks continued to be the most commonly targeted racial group, accounting about 38 percent of all racially-motivated incidents in 2009.
Though Alberta has attracted controversial white supremacist activity and has a “redneck” reputation, Statistics Canada shows Edmonton and Calgary are not even in the top ten Canadian cities with the most reported hate crimes.
Kitchener-Waterloo topped the cities for most reported hate crimes at 18 per 100,000 people, followed by Guelph, Peterborough, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Vancouver, Kingston, and Toronto.
March for Understanding continues in Alberta until March 30, featuring 26 activities. Event schedule and program can be found at MarchForUnderstanding.com.
Individuals worldwide can also participate in the movement by joining the “Virtual march Against Racism,” an awareness campaign and online petition where participants can make a declaration in support of racial equity.