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Perth County moves towards drafting anti-racism, inclusivity charter

Winona Sands, a Perth County resident whose Indigenous heritage is rooted in the Chippewa Nation, pictured smudging during a Multicultural Association anti-racism demonstration at the county courthouse in Stratford on Jan. 29. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

Multicultural Association continues to target council with demonstrations

PERTH COUNTY – For several months, a disjointed discussion of racism and inclusivity has been happening in Perth County. On Jan. 28  a report from the Economic Development and Tourism department offered council members another opportunity to engage in the conversation.

“At the meeting on Dec. 3 a motion was passed that staff bring a report back to council on a charter for Perth County on anti-racism and inclusivity,” said Justin Dias, manager of Economic Development and Tourism. “At the same meeting council also passed a motion to investigate support for a multicultural celebration month in June to correspond with the Canadian Multiculturalism Day on June 27.”

The first step taken when staff gathered the information for the report was to do a situational analysis to identify what other related work had been done.

“We also looked at some of the best practice research to understand how other municipalities have established charters or similar initiatives and engaged with the community through some key stakeholders,” said Dias.

The situational analysis revealed the county and community partners have engaged in studies and completed work reflective of the inclusivity values they would expect to find in the charter. “We can trace some of this back to the Social Research and Planning Council’s report on embracing diversity from 2017,” he said. “For example, the county and community partners had led an application to bring a local immigration partnership to Perth County.”

In the 2017 report, the recommendation referred to during the presentation of the 2021 report was the creation of a Perth County Local Immigration Partnership (LIP). The LIP has not yet received the required funding to move forward to date.

Other actions that came out of the 2017 report were establishing and supporting workshops on inclusion, anti-racism, systemic discrimination and cultural awareness within the  economic development work plans.

In the best practice research, staff looked at 12 municipalities including a mix of urban and rural to understand how similar charters have been developed.

“Unfortunately there is not prescribed or uniformed method for how a community should develop a charter,” said Dias. “Each community that we looked at developed a charter based on unique local context and circumstances… This broad spectrum of both approaches and interpretation emphasizes the need for a Perth County approach that is suited to our local context.”

According to Dias, some of the common themes through consultation with stakeholders and research was that a charter as a statement of principles and values on inclusivity and anti-racism should achieve objectives such as achieving a feeling of belonging among under-represented groups including visible minorities, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities by seeing their concerns and well-being considered and expressed publicly.

“The charter should reaffirm the county’s public commitment to anti-racism and inclusivity as a priority,” he said. “The charter should also support and stimulate meaningful action so these are some of the common themes across charters.”

During consultation efforts, Dias said the Economic Development and Tourism Department gained a greater awareness of the Community Safety and Well-being Plan that is currently being developed by partners across the county and local municipalities. The partners include police services, United Way, school boards and healthcare services.

“This plan is the result of extensive community consultation that took place during the second half of 2020 including those of diverse backgrounds,” said Dias. “While the plan is still being developed it is evident that diversity, equity and inclusion are going to be one of the key priorities for actions that were identified and we did identify that participation by the county in implementing the Community Safety and Well-being Plan once it is fully developed as well as participating in any of the implementation groups could be one of the ways the proposed charter… could be supported by actions.”

Although the Economic Development and Tourism Department was primarily consulting on the development of the charter they did take the opportunity to ask if there was community support for a multicultural celebration month in June.

“We did find there was widespread agreement that celebrating this month,” said Dias. “In going forward with the celebration the county is encouraged to start small, focus on building relationships and gradually look at ways to enhance and expand the celebration over time.”

The charter development program was broken into five steps with a rough timeline starting in February.

The process suggested in the report was to develop a draft charter in February, circulate the draft to the community for feedback from March to April, make revisions to the charter based on feedback in April and present the final charter for council adoption in May. It was also suggested the charter be subject to periodic reviews.

A motion directing staff to carry out the proposed charter development plan, engage with the Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan Committee so that the county can work in collaboration to support collective activities on inclusivity and anti-racism, and to incorporate activities that support a Multiculturalism Celebration Month in June to correspond with Canadian Multiculturalism Day on June 27 was put into the Economic Development and Tourism work plan.

Coun. Hugh McDermid asked if it would be possible for council to find out who is on the Community Safety and Well-being Plan Committee and what data they are using.

Dias repeated that it is municipalities, school boards, health care, police services and the United Way.

“I don’t have the specific membership in front of me but that is something I could provide.”

When the Listowel Banner contacted economic development for a list of organizations, particularly those which represent members of the BIPOC community during research for this report, the Economic Development and Communications Officer, Sarah Franklin, replied by email.

“During the pre-consultation process for this report we reached out to a diverse group of individuals with lived experience,” she wrote. “In addition, we also connected with community organizations and stakeholders who regularly interact with and serve these groups. We can’t share the individual names as the consultations were conducted on the condition of anonymity so individuals could speak freely.

“As part of the plan going forward to develop the Charter, we will be continuing to engage with stakeholders, including BIPOC individuals, as well as reaching out more broadly into the community for further input.”

Coun. Robert Wilhelm said a draft copy of the Community Safety and Well-being Plan is available.

“I encourage everyone to review it and send in comments and concerns so that it can be finished off but that’s an excellent report and I encourage not only councillors but all the community throughout Perth County to review it,” he said.

Once the motion was on the floor, Coun. Todd Kasenberg commented.

“I think it’s an important matter,” he said. “A matter affecting a growing number of people in our county and certainly it’s a matter of human decency as well. I’m interested in outcomes in this area of effort.”

“I believe that this is a journey, not a project and so there are some concerns that I’ll legitimately express to encourage those best possible outcomes,” he continued. “I want to say as I’ve said all along in this matter that I am a white male. I can acknowledge that I am at the pinnacle of privilege that you hear about. This statement means that I have never felt discrimination or excluded because of my race or skin colour.”

“I have, as we all do, felt excluded in ways over 55 years of living,” Kasenberg continued. “I have been excluded as a result of health because I am a severe asthmatic. I have been excluded in matters political sometimes – holding different views than what is considered mainstream from time to time. These are petty small exclusions in the big storm of human exclusivity. I cannot relate to what is faced by BIPOC. I have no experience with it.”

“I can at most hope to be an ally,” he continued. “Someone who amongst other things encourages public policy that encourages the worth and dignity of all to be not just recognized but celebrated.”

“I think this effort does represent progress towards outcomes,” he said. “I won’t say I believe it’s the best way, here’s why.”

“Like me, I suspect staff charged with leading this cannot fully relate to being BIPOC,” said Kasenberg. “It is my earnest hope then that beyond the borrowing research work of others as suggested notions of borrowing from the Community Safety and Well-being Plan work that is in progress staff will immerse themselves in ally-ship.”

“This is not a quick project,” he said. “I appreciated that staff have put in timelines making this look project-like and achievable quickly and I applaud the ambition that is shown in their work, but this is a process which requires listening, reading, silence and some time.”

“I trust that any staff we commit to this effort will understand the importance of this work and will review great works by Ibram X. Kendi, the books Me and White Supremacy and White Fragility and will work closely with BIPOC in our community,” he said. “I am anxious that in the day-to-day efforts we’ll need BIPOC to turn to, to seek advice from and it may even be appropriate for daily or at least frequent check-ins. We may want to engage a consultant with lived experience to support what lies ahead.”

“I have a small concern about the optics of having staff in economic development lead this process,” said Kasenberg. “They are a good focus team, it has nothing to do with their hearts or their usual skills and I don’t know enough of their experience in this sort of work to offer any further comment.

“What concerns me, and I say this advisedly, is that by putting a project of this scope under the umbrella of economic development we may suggest that BIPOC are resources, economic resources. That is absolutely the wrong frame of reference.”

“I trust our team will act with sensitivity to this,” he said. “I am further concerned that we expect that council will be the place to monitor and shape our actions moving forward. We can’t ignore that we are not very diverse racially. So I am concerned that we have a mechanism for monitoring and future engagement which relies on us, at this moment 10 white people, to be steering and judging performance. I feel that’s inadequate.”

“We are placing hope in the work of another committee or group,” said Kasenberg. “The Community Safety and Well-being Plan to significantly support our work and expecting that to yield quick fruit. I have asked for more detail on their work in progress and the construction of said committee like Coun. McDermid has. They have an important job to do. I just hope that what they have done to date truly does support this effort and that they don’t mind us coming up alongside them to evaluate data relevant to our work on inclusivity and diversity.”

“I haven’t heard much said about the reaction to this report by BIPOC,” he said. “I understand some consultations were done but we don’t have parties like Mr. (Gezahgn) Wordofa (founder of the Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron) or others here today to give us input on whether this plan will meet with their confidence.”

“I hope we remain flexible about inputs that may come from relevant parties in the coming days,” said Kasenberg. “I want to see a charter. I think everybody knows that very well. I want to see us commit to inclusivity and diversity and anti-racism.”

“I love the idea in this report that the charter will give us yet another lens on our work as it should,” he said. “I appreciate that a periodic review process will be included and I think that was well stated.”

“With my reservations about the lack of comment from the Multicultural Association,” said Kasenberg. “With my reservations that staff needs an embedded BIPOC advisor and with my reservations about the Community Safety and Well-being Plan being a rich and available source for this work. With my reservations about the lack of clarity of what more besides a project to generate a charter we can and will do and with reservations about a lack of council learning program or learning plan, nevertheless, I can support this effort. It will get us going down the right path to these outcomes that I hope reflect the richness of our communities and our home.”

Warden James Aitcheson asked Dias if he wanted to comment on Kasenberg’s statement.

“I guess I’m definitely noting those concerns in terms of the path forward,” said Dias.

“I think the Community (Safety and) Well-being Plans, they’ve been working on them for a while, they are actually out in draft form, each lower-tier should have one including the City of Stratford and as Coun. Wilhelm said they do make some interesting reading,” said Aitcheson.

The motion was carried unanimously.

Wordofa watched the presentation of the report on the county YouTube channel.

“We are not satisfied,” said Wordofa. “I saw it online… I’m not happy. We will continue to get our answer. We have a large community, not only us in the multicultural… in the area but all the community is not happy.”

The Multicultural Association has been organizing protests in response to Perth County council’s lack of interest in creating a committee to explore an anti-racism charter on Nov. 19. A move that many members of the BIPOC community saw as a rejection.

“Why did they deny us the first time?” asked Wordofa. “This is not the 15th century. What happened? We’re working and living here… already integrated and then why did the council decide to do that. We’re not happy. First, we need a letter of apology. Not only with us… for the community.”

In response to the consultation mentioned in the report, Wordofa said, “Nobody came to us – nobody came to talk to us. It was a form letter. We didn’t deny it… we emailed them and answered their questions. That’s it. There is not any consultation with us… we are a community. They have to be at the table for discussion.”

Wordofa said the demonstrations at the Perth County courthouse in Stratford which have been supported by local Indigenous groups and Black Lives Matter will continue.

He also addressed the plan for a Multicultural Celebration Month.

“We are always celebrating in June, multiculturalism days – that’s our plan, we do it every year,” said Wordofa. “ We celebrate every year. The same day, the same time … we don’t want them to take this from us. They can say Economic Development and Tourism but this is what we do, we celebrate every year. We celebrate with the Chamber of Commerce and also community church groups and also local businesses… We are continuing and we don’t need any help from them.”

He said they do not celebrate multiculturalism to bring tourists.

“We are celebrating every day our existence in this country,” said Wordofa. “ We are part of the community who live in this area. It is not because of economic development reasons to bring us here. Economic development, they are promoting to hire newcomers in the area. Before that what was the relationship with us? We are living. It’s not to benefit Rural Ontario Economic Development – no, we are not a part of that. We are not. We are not celebrating because they told us to do this… We are doing our own… We saw at this moment who is our friend.”

Wordofa said many community members have come forward to offer support since the perceived rejection by the county in November. He said there is no demand for county funding.   Wordofa said newcomers just want to be a part of writing the charter because they exist.

“If you go to many other places newcomers are part of the community and not apart (from it)  in some way,” he said. “Because we are newcomers we are dominated, this is discrimination – they are discriminating against us.”

Loreena McKennitt spoke to the Listowel Banner about her support of the Multicultural Association.

“It’s great to feel a kind of enrichment of people coming from other places,” she said. “I think it’s interesting to reflect on from a historical standpoint – not coming from Indigenous heritage. My family’s heritage comes from Ireland and Scotland. Many of us come from other places… so Canada has been a continuum of inviting people to come and live here. Without question, it’s very, very difficult to come to a new community and get settled and I think the services that the Multicultural Association offer are vital. I think that for those of us who never had to flee our homes, our homelands out of either famine or war – we have very little tangible reference to appreciate what that experience must be and so I think it’s incumbent upon communities to pay extra attention to our newcomer families and their needs and that they feel welcome and integrated in a meaningful way.

“Sometimes that means we have to pay a bit of extra attention to ensuring that framework is in place.”

Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.