Listening is useless unless we are prepared to act on racism

When I arrived at the Black Lives Matter demonstration on Saturday, there were already thousands in attendance. The crowd was diverse, a reflection of Calgary’s ever-changing population. People from all walks of life had gathered at Olympic Plaza “to honour the victims of police brutality and violence,” with a peaceful protest, the fourth of its kind in Calgary since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. My daughters and I attended the vigil to listen and learn. The protesters’ demands were clear — peace, equality, justice and an end to systemic racism. 

As a person of colour who has lived his whole life in Calgary, I am familiar with prejudice and bigotry. But since becoming an elected city councillor, I am distanced from much of the institutional racism that pervades life for many Calgarians. When in a position of privilege, lived experiences can fade from our memories — we might forget or ignore past injustices. But in an age where everything is captured on video, the veil of ignorance has been thrown away. We are forced to confront the painful truth about how racialized communities experience everyday life. I encourage all Calgarians to watch. The recent brutality is not limited by one’s ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or age.

Canada’s journey over the last 153 years has been one of growth and progress. It is also a journey with much unresolved injustice. Indigenous people were colonized, subjected to countless atrocities, and remain marginalized to this day. We celebrate our heritage through the Calgary Stampede, but the legacy of black cowboys and their families, who played a significant role in the Old West, is mostly forgotten. Chinese labourers built the national railway, performing the most dangerous tasks for less pay than their white counterparts, and are referenced as a historical footnote. Immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world have contributed to building our city while seeking freedom, opportunity and safety. Too often we have failed to provide those basic values.

When Calgary city council approved the creation of a community-based public safety task force, our intention was to identify and address community concerns around violence with a focus on gang and gun violence. As the task force prepares for its second meeting, it has become clear that we must answer difficult questions about the institutions we rely on to make society safer: questions about accountability and transparency; questions about safety and equity; questions about our patterns of thought. Violence is complex, and there are no quick fixes. We cannot ignore the racial and ethnic components of community safety. These protests have created an opportunity for the victims of racism and brutality to be heard by all. But listening is meaningless unless we are prepared to look inside ourselves and our institutions and make necessary changes.

To those who have experienced racism and violence in Calgary, I want to listen and learn about the challenges you have faced. Your voices matter, and not just in the context of worldwide protests. I invite you to email or call my office. To my fellow councillors, we must lead by example in the fight for equity and justice by committing to transparency and personal accountability in local government. We need access to race-based data and a willingness to confront unconscious bias. To provincial and federal politicians, as well as business and community leaders, if you choose to remain silent in the face of injustice, you are complicit. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” Finally, to all Calgarians, these demonstrations have shown that you have an incredible capacity for compassion and desire for justice. Continue to hold your elected officials accountable by giving a voice to the voiceless. I hope that we can summon the courage and compassion to meet the moment.

George Chahal is the city councillor for Ward 5 in Calgary.

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