by Robin Browne
On, Wednesday, March 21, the annual United Nations Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, I joined about 200 diverse members of Ottawa’s Black community at the Addressing Anti-Black Racism Town Hall at Ottawa City Hall. Held in the City council chambers, the meeting was a follow up to the 2016 anti-Black racism town hall and the subsequent 2017 Addressing Anti-Black Racism in Ottawa Forum Summary Report. The aim of the town hall was to hear from representatives from organizations involved in education, social services and policing, as well as the City of Ottawa, about what they’ve done to respond to the report’s recommendations. The all-white panel consisted of Police Chief, Charles Bordeleau, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board Director, Jennifer Adams, Réjean Sirois, Directeur de l’éducation, Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est, City of Ottawa Service Innovation and Performance Department General Manager, Donna Gray, and Simone Thibault, Executive Director, Centretown Community Health Centre, on behalf of the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres.
There was networking time from 5:30pm to 6:15pm outside the council chambers, with food provided, which gave a good opportunity to connect with old acquaintances – and make new ones. The town hall was from 6:15pm to 9:00pm.
Were the goals of the event achieved?
The stated goal of the event was to “review our community’s progress in the year since the launch of the Addressing Anti-Black Racism Report in February 2017.” It was actually to review the progress of the organizations on the panel in implementing the report’s recommendations not to discuss the impact, if any, on the progress of our community. Given, the lack of discussion of actual community impact, the review was superficial and allowed panelists to make general, unchallenged statements. Still, the event did provide an opportunity for audience members to challenge panelists on certain issues and tell them they will continue to do so.
I questioned the lack of representation of the city’s largest employer, the Government of Canada. [There was no federal government representation because the report focussed only on “city” institutions and the feds weren’t invited to the first town hall in 2016.]
Was the format conducive to a dialogue that could lead to effective measures to combat racism?
The town hall portion started with panelists being given eight minutes each to say what their respective organizations had done to implement as least one of the report’s recommendations, followed by a question and answer session with the audience. You can read one take on what the panelists said in this CBC story.
Following the panelists’ remarks, audience members first commented on the fact that the panel had far more time than audience members, who were limited to one minute per question, which left less time for both questions and answers.
However, audience members didn’t let the time limit stop them from taking the panelists to task for embellishing their accomplishments over the last year, not taking notes at a session where they were supposed to be learning from the community and not answering the questions asked.
Were the panel members responsive to the report published in 2017 or were they simply repeating old cliches?
The author of the 2016 Anti-Black racism report, Chelby Daigle, was at the town hall and said a lot of what some of the panelists said was fluff or not actually true if you had spoken to people working on the inside of the institutions “off the record”.
What could have been done to improve this dialogue?
Chelby suggested these changes for next time:
- Don’t have a floating mic and set the ground rules for how and when questions will be answered at the beginning. Get people to come down to the mic unless there is a mobility issue and have the moderator at the mic. Things will go more smoothly even when emotions are high.
- Have people who have researched each institution/sector who could challenge the statements made by each institution with facts during the question period [including the actual impact on our community of their stated actions (i.e. are they hiring more Black people?)
- Give priority to those most impacted by these institutions, such as elementary and high school students, during the open mic. This means making sure they are reached out to and supported to attend the town hall in the first place.
(I would add inviting a representative of the federal public service to address how they’re dealing with anti-Black racism.)
What should we in the black community, individually and collectively do, moving forward to keep this issue on the city’s radar?
Chelby urged us to be more effective, responsible, transparent, and accountable community organizers, making sure to reach outside our federal government and union networks to Black folks with other types of jobs – or no jobs at all. She particularly mentioned younger Black folks and those who are more socio-economically marginalized, and not just speaking on their behalf, but creating forums where they can speak for themselves and we can organize together as equals, because that is how real change will happen.
How can success be measured in the future?
Success will be measured by how much the organizations implement the recommendations of the Addressing Anti-Black Racism in Ottawa Forum Summary Report and including the federal public service which should be included.
Would you recommend another town hall meeting similar to this one to continue the conversation or was it a waste of time?
Annual town halls should definitely continue to keep holding these public institutions accountable.
About the writer
Robin Browne is an African-Canadian communications professional and father of two boys. He lives in Ottawa.