Can the right people participate in systemic racism? In a word – yes.
That question was the title of Cecil Sveinson’s presentation on Monday — the first of five the city is sharing with its staff and Winnipeggers as part of a week of anti-racism education.
“Anyone can participate and everyone participates in systemic racism,” said Sveinson, the city’s Indigenous relations manager.
“Either you’re anti-racist in the sense that you speak out against racism…or you’re not and you’re complicit in systemic racism. And if you’re white, you benefit.”
The presentations are a collaboration between the Citizen’s Human Rights Committee and the City’s Equity and Diversity Department. They began on Monday, as it is the United Nations’ declarative International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, according to city staff.
The presentations were originally intended only for city staff, Sveinson said, but the human rights committee suggested they be broadcast live and then posted on the city’s website.
Sveinson, who was hired last summer in the new Indigenous relations position, focused his presentation on explaining how anyone can be guilty of fostering systemic racism.
“Once you start talking about racism, whether systemic or personal, people shut up. It’s like when you call out racist behavior, but they immediately take it as an attack on who they are as a nobody,” he said.
“That was the point of the presentation, it was to give real, concrete, historical and current examples of this. There are a lot of good people who participate and continue to participate in systemic racism.”
Sveinson said organizations — including the City of Winnipeg — have a responsibility to not only hire more people of color, but to create workplace cultures where racist practices or behaviors can be addressed without pushing people. He used his 25 years of experience with the Winnipeg Police Service to demonstrate this idea.
“The Winnipeg Police Service wasn’t ready to have an aboriginal group of officers,” he said of the first time he was hired.
“The proof is that before we even took to the streets, we lost five Aboriginal classmates. And when I retired in April 2017, of all those Indigenous officers…there was just me and two others left in the organization.
Sveinson shared ways to be part of the solution, including reporting racist acts when they happen and continuing to work for reconciliation.
“You don’t have to lead us, but you don’t have to walk behind us either,” he said during his presentation. “We are all in the same boat.”
Bowman hopes the community has changed
Ahead of Sveinson’s presentation, Mayor Brian Bowman commented on his administration’s work in responding to the idea that Winnipeg is Canada’s most racist city – a title awarded to the municipality in a 2015 Maclean’s article.
“Racism was and continues to be a problem in Winnipeg and across the country,” Bowman said.
“I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken that have transformed our community from one that questions the very existence of racism to one that has recognized systemic racism and become an active leader in its fight.”
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Bowman mentioned a handful of ways the city has worked to address racism, including creating the human rights committee and passing an Indigenous accord.
City staff are also building a diversity database to analyze how well Winnipeg’s public servants reflect its population. Staff told the city’s innovation committee last week that they still encourage employees to disclose this information for the database.
Sveinson praises the current mayor and council for this work, saying it can be “unpopular” and that Manitoba had a premier who “denied there was racism.” Now he hopes the city can transition from fighting racism to being an anti-racist organization.
“[I hope] they watch those lunchtime sessions, they learn something, and then they take it upon themselves to do that self-directed learning,” he said.
“It’s taken us a long time to get to where we are with racism as a society, so it’s going to take a long time for things to improve. But we have to have a starting point.”