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Confronting Innisfail’s long silent racism issue

Welcoming committee trudges forward with hope

INNISFAIL - It was just over eight months ago when a disappointed Sue Haddow wrote a "heartfelt" letter to the town about a proposed community-led anti-racism rally.

There was growing resistance in the community for the planned event that was initiated by the shy, young but determined Brittney Bovey. Haddow was worried the town might not support it.

But for Haddow, a 55-year-old woman of colour who was born in Sri Lanka, there was determination to convince the town it had to get proactive as a way to show support for the community’s visible minorities. A resident of Innisfail for more than half a century, Haddow, a respected social worker, had experienced the ugly sting of racism.

“One of the things I put in my letter to the town was that somebody shouted out a derogatory name (N-word) to me, and that was just a couple of years ago at the Henday Mall, and shouting it out in the mall parking lot,” said Haddow, who moved to Canada with her family just before the age of three. “Those kinds of things happen to people, not just me. It’s not OK. It’s not acceptable but people are uncomfortable addressing things like that. That was a blatant thing but there are a lot more subtle things that have happened.”

Innisfail’s anti-racism rally last June 13 went on. The Town of Innisfail ultimately endorsed the event, but not before it attracted national attention, with some media outlets depicting the town as a locale not unlike those from the American deep south – backward and unacceptably intolerant.

But change did come, not dramatic but just enough for the moment, enough for many to take notice. The Town of Innisfail drafted its own Anti-Racial Discrimination & Anti-Racism Policy. Citizens rallied to create the fourth Welcoming & Inclusive Community Committee (WICC) that would focus on racism. Haddow became a member, and is now co-chair.

Engaging community

Pat Bidart is a senior technical advisor for Colleges and Institutes Canada who has been involved with Innisfail's award-winning WICC since 2005. Along with Haddow's half-century of living in town, and with Jason Heistad, a former three-term town councillor and secretary-treasurer of the Alberta Union of Public Employees, today's WICC is being led by co-chairs with longtime roots and impeccable professional credentials

The first meeting of the new group, which attracted nine citizens, was held June 29.

Since the new WICC’s humble beginnings, members have worked hard, despite the COVID-19 public gathering challenges, to engage citizens on racism, diversity and inclusion. There are now 15 members, including a youth representative, the Innisfail RCMP and from both school boards.

WICC has brought in guest speakers from Central Alberta-based UBUNTU, an anti-racist advocacy group, and invited members of Innisfail town council for training meetings.

A sub-committee has been working on a survey with various local organizations to determine if members have experienced racism, or witnessed incidents. There is another sub-committee building a new website, which is about to go live. WICC is also active on social media, with their own Facebook and Twitter accounts that have become trusted sources for credible information and educational resources.

There are also plans to bring in the voices of indigenous elders to offer their insights into racism.

“Our committee right now is trying to educate people that being a racist isn’t alright, and maybe you don’t think you are a racist but think about what you are saying, think about how you approach people,” said Bidart, who is working professionally this winter in the Caribbean island country of Saint Lucia. “I didn’t want us to be against anything. I wanted us to be positive, that what we are going to do was to present information and to work with our community.

“We are going to be positive with the work we are doing, and yes, we will have conversations, and yes, we will address issues as they are brought to us.”

Healing comes

The hard work of the new WICC in facing the reality of the once hidden but still insidious bite of racism in Innisfail, which many citizens still deny, has resulted in a growing number of citizens now bravely willing to talk about the once silent but always dark issue.

“It has definitely opened up the door to a lot of conversations for me personally, within my own family and things we never talked about. I found myself sharing different incidents that have happened to me in our community and outside it that my family was never aware of,” said Haddow. “Part of what I felt growing up as one of the only people of colour in the community was that it was a bit of a shameful thing to talk about and I shouldn’t talk about it. I shouldn’t come clean.

“My own family was starting to realize a lot of the things that I have gone through over the years in this community,” she added. “That was a bit of an eye-opener for them but I also had friends contact me, and recalled different things that have happened, like name calling, and calling me and feeling like, ‘wow we’ve never talked about this.’

“But I remember this like it was yesterday. Of course, I remember every single moment like that that has ever happened,” said Haddow.

However, she has found hope and comfort the past stings of racism can be soothed through simple but honest conversation, not only for herself but for her family, friends, the community and even for people who are not comfortable with the topic.

“I think what this committee is working towards is making it something we can talk about, and work towards some progress and acceptance,” she said.

The end goal

The trio of co-chairs all agree there is a long road ahead to fully end racism in Innisfail. It may even take many, many years – unlike the previous three WICC.

“It is a long-term project. I think the committee members are committed to making sure that Innisfail is an inclusive community, not only to live but to come in and visit,” said Heistad. “This subject on racism has been around for decades. I think the people of Innisfail identify that we have our own issues, and that’s why as a committee we feel it is important to educate.”

Bidart is blunter. She said for an issue like racism there is only one end goal the WICC can ever consider.

“I think the end goal would be you wouldn’t need a committee. You would have arrived,” said Bidart.

As for Haddow, she believes the WICC has made a “huge step forward” but racism will never be fixed overnight and there needs to be continued focus on next necessary steps. Better still, said Haddow, there is now bright shining hope for better days.

 “Getting involved with WICC has been a positive and empowering experience for me,” she said. “It has made me so much more aware of the good that is happening in our community.”

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