On May 25, 2020, the world gasped as George Floyd struggled for air. His final words, `I can't breathe,' sparked an urgent conversation about how racism and discrimination permeate our lives. In a four-part occasional series, we dive into the lack of diversity in key municipal institutions and how we can do better. Today, Bruce Deachman turns the focus on the media.
Fifty years ago, the Great White North was extremely white. In 1971, those of British and other European descent made up more than 96 per cent of the population. The remainder, according to Statistics Canada, were “Indian” or Inuit, Asiatic, “Negro” or “Not stated.”
And then a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century: Immigrants from all over the globe chose Canada as a place where they might pursue a good life.
In Ottawa, according to 2016 figures, 4.6 per cent of the population claimed Aboriginal roots, and another 26.3 per cent indicated a nonwhite or non-European heritage.
Not all institutions, including this one, adapted quickly or enough.
“I want to feel reflected in the news, like this is a community for me, this is a place where I can see myself,” says Nathan Hall, a Black Kanata resident and founder of Culture Check, a business that provides supports to address racial discrimination in the workplace. “But at no point would I ever turn to the Ottawa Citizen for connection and say, `Oh, this is where I'm going to learn about my community and what's happening and what's going to be important to me.'”
As a step toward better reflecting the city we serve, we asked Hall and others from Ottawa's racialized communities to let us know what stories of theirs we, and the media at large, should be telling.
started to raise their hand, so you couldn't knock them all down. There was so much energy behind it.
“But it took nine minutes and 29 seconds on someone's neck, and protests around the world, in order for us to have this dialogue, in order for companies or the government to wake up and say, `We need to do something.' It wasn't our voices, it wasn't the stories of everyone saying we have a problem. It required something to that level of extreme in order to have this conversation.
“The threshold for what makes a story newsworthy, when you are part of a marginalized group, is so high. Everyone is good at identifying racial slurs spray-painted on your garage door or burning crosses on your lawn as a problem. But how much pain and suffering and discrimination is being experienced before we get to that level?
“There are many barriers that prevent us from speaking up and sharing our truth. Just the idea alone of sharing my story feels like an act of bravery. But only hearing about a narrow spectrum of issues reaffirms with the public, `There's no problem here.' So we're constantly being told that racism isn't an issue that we face in Canada, these aren't issues that we face in Ottawa. But these are our issues; you're just refusing to listen, and talk about them.
“Where does it go from here? We've seen some things being done (since George Floyd).
Some of it might be performative or surface level, like whacking down certain moles, but not really getting into the root issues. So are people doing enough to address these systemic issues? There's more pressure now and a lot more people are conscious of them — there's more awareness. But is it substantially changing things? Is it enough for the voices that have been fighting to be heard to have their chance?
“I think there are a lot of opportunities for the media to reflect those stories. You have the power to shine a light on what matters in our society, and who matters in our society.
“Many people say they care about homelessness, but if we collectively cared, we could eliminate it. And it's the same with racism. Everyone says they care, and I think that maybe you care on a theoretical and intellectual level, but are we going to do anything about it? What are you willing to change?”
Nathan Hall is the founder and CEO of Culture Check, a business that provides support, education and best practices to address racial discrimination in the workplace.
“When you say our community, or my community, we have to recognize that it's all of our community. The reality is that you are treaty people just like I am a treaty numbered person, and it's really about informing our community of their treaty obligation.
“What is your treaty obligation? I shouldn't tell you. I'll leave that up to you. It's up to you to understand your treaty obligation, because Canada is not ours. It was placed on us.
“You need to start developing relationships with the First Peoples of this land, as opposed to sporadically, like when there are different things happening. We're not always in crisis. Tell our good stories, tell our resilient stories, but let us help you lead it. Whether you hire Indigenous-, Inuit- or Métis-specific journalists to lead the conversation, or to start developing relationships with the Indigenous, Inuit and Métis of the territory. And not come from your own stereotype or myth, because that skews our story, and it skews our resilience, too.
“Talk about the resilience but also the inequality, when the police, the SWAT team, come in, and the need for aftercare, as opposed to the imaging that we are all bad. You really need to break down that myth and stereotype. We've lived together for a long time, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, over 500 years, but there is still such a disconnect.
“Look at the water. We can drink from this tap, but an hour and a half from here, you can't drink the water from Kitigan Zibi. Or in Tyendinaga, you can't drink the water, and they're right beside major towns? And acknowledge your faults. When Canada went to war in Oka in 1990, that was a war. You went to war with Indigenous people. We still feel it.
“There's so much. Canada has human rights errors constantly, and yet the narrative is that we're great.
“The one that I get the most is, what is cultural appropriation? Really be in the knowledge of what is your cultural appropriation, and then come to different spaces to learn more. You still have the store over here selling fake headdresses and Pocahontas costumes for Halloween. We're not a costume, or a mascot.
“But we don't always have to be tragedy-front. We need to hear of the strength and the resilience.
“I would tell the media: Do better. Really do better. From land-defending to the portrayal of all those `bad' Indians — you know, get them out of the pipeline area, get them out of the tarsands, get them out of there because they're causing a problem. But really go back to the grassroots organizations, like the Families of Sisters in Spirit for missing and murdered Indigenous women, the Wet'suwet'en, the grassroots organizations. Take the blinders off what John Wayne or John Ford taught you about Indians. We're not Hollywood's version anymore.
“You're going to make mistakes, but let's give that up and push forward. If you hurt our feelings, we will tell you. If you make a mistake, yeah, we'll tell you. But don't say, `Well, I tried,' and then blame us when we call you out. That's stereotypical, that's racist, that's not appropriate.
“It's about building a relationship and understanding. It's really important to go back to the people. Look at us like a real First Nations person, and if you don't know what that is, you better start asking. And do it as best as you can.”
“I feel you should explore how what happens abroad impacts Canadian culture and people around us.
“We're caught up in the pandemic right now, so we feel like we are removed from these incidents in other parts of the world and we forget about people surviving. Look at the violence erupting in Palestine, at what happened to the girls' school in Afghanistan, and what's happening in India.
“I was in the hospital ICU recently. I was put on oxygen and told that had I not come in when I did, I wouldn't have made it. And then seeing what's going on in India, I'm thinking, I know how they feel, because I was short of breath. I was put on oxygen because it was accessible, whereas people over there are dying in the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, because they don't have access. Sometimes you feel so far removed until it happens to you. But how can you not connect to it as a human being? Forget politics. Forget culture. Forget ethnicity, diversity, religion. This is humanity.
“Yet despite having all of the so-called education, awareness and access, and having accessibility to knowledge, I find that we are still far removed.
“When I was in the hospital, I had an experience that I label as racist and Islamophobic. I was in the midst of prayer, in the COVID unit, when the doctor on call came to check on me. I had my back turned, facing the wall, and she came up to me while I was praying and said, `I don't have time for this' and just proceeded to check my heart and lungs while I was praying.
“I figured, she's a professional with cultural training; she knows what I'm doing and she'll come back later. But no. She proceeded to ask me whether I'd had a bowel movement or diarrhea, while I was in the sacred act of prayer. And I asked her afterwards, `What kind of training have you had? How many other people have you done this to?' I could feel my heart pounding.
“I was lucky growing up. When I was in Grade 5, I had my hijab pulled off. I'm not sure if it was racist, but it was definitely bullying. But I felt shame, like I had done something wrong. In Grade 7, I experienced something racist, but didn't understand it at the time. Then there was 9/11, which brought a whole different level of fear.
“So these are the themes of racism I've experienced. But the one at the hospital was the first time I'd experienced something like that. It was just one incident, but it made me think about whether here, in Ottawa, people understand how international events truly impact us.
“I was at the Palestinian demonstration, and saw this elderly woman, sitting in a portable chair, watching. I looked at her eyes, these weathered green eyes filled with such life because she saw all these young people fighting and protesting for her rights back home. So here we think we are so far removed that it doesn't impact us, but it does on so many levels. We are either removed and clueless, or desensitized. Or we don't care.
“Part of it is that the media is perhaps not covering things in a way that people can relate to and connect to. Perhaps there isn't enough cultural diversity training as we first thought there was. Or perhaps that even though it's there, we have to come to the conclusion that there are people who really don't care, that not everybody is going to have that acceptance.
“It's important to promote that deep reflection, to think about how interconnected we are with other parts of the world, rather than feeling that we just have to focus on our families, our personal successes. We truly are interlinked. I know from an Islamic perspective, and this is where my spirituality comes in, that when one part of your body hurts, another part is also hurting, and I think as humans we can all connect with that concept.”