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Surprise, addressing racism in Saskatoon is difficult, necessary Print-ready version

Who knew a campaign about racism could make people uncomfortable?

by Phil Tank
Saskatoon StarPhoenix
July 10, 2017

Social media and then the news media reacted last week to the City of Saskatoon's anti-racism campaign and one billboard in particular that featured a white man referencing his own "privilege and racist attitudes."

That sparked a debate about whether the campaign missed the mark by focusing on, presumably, white privilege instead of racism.

But to expect racism to be addressed successfully in Saskatoon - or anywhere - without tough, uncomfortable conversations seems naive. If a simple, magic-wand solution existed, it probably would have been employed by now.

Perhaps it's just July and the time is ripe for the media to seize upon a storm created by a small group on social media. Perhaps there is some widespread opposition to talking about privilege based on race.

Some seemed to think the billboard was telling people what to think, rather than reflecting what one Saskatoon man thinks.

If billboards had that much influence, the city could have just posted the message: "Stop being racist, Saskatoon." Problem solved.

We all know it's more complex than that.

Another campaign billboard features an Aboriginal woman saying, "... I realize in this country I am not a high priority."

Where's the outrage over that? People cannot get too terribly angry over a statement they know is true.

The focus on white privilege touched a nerve of discomfort that presumes granting equality to one group means taking something away from another group. Or it lays the blame for racism on individuals, rather than history.

It's easier to deal with racism if it's seen as something that evolved, rather than an attitude that is being perpetuated. Nobody wants to be complicit.

In May, a monument was unveiled in front of Saskatoon's police headquarters to acknowledge missing and murdered Indigenous women.

When police Chief Clive Weighill announced he intended to retire last month, he was lauded for restoring residents' faith in the police force by helping to erase the stain of police racism.

Saskatoon remains only a few decades removed from allegations police took Aboriginal men on "starlight tours" and left them outside in bitter winter cold to freeze to death.

For some in Saskatoon, Indigenous women, for example, racism is not just an uncomfortable conversation - it clearly remains a matter of life and death.

No community can successfully address racism without admitting it exists and that includes, as one white man in Saskatoon said on a billboard, "... I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes."

Saskatoon might not like the message that it's a racist community, but it's not a new message.

In an interview last year, Life of Pi author and Saskatoon resident Yann Martel said the city is "tainted, divided by racism," mainly by whites against Aboriginal people.

In 2013, legendary singer-songwriter and Saskatoon native Joni Mitchell called Saskatoon "an extremely bigoted community" and likened it to the Deep South in the United States.

Whether the city's billboard campaign helped advance the conversation about racism or distracted from it remains debatable. But few deny there needs to be a conversation about racism.

Saskatoon will not have truly achieved progress on addressing racism until a campaign is no longer needed.

Is there progress? Sure.

The city's next police chief will likely not have to talk about starlight tours and the resulting Stonechild Inquiry.

The city is working to implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attempting to address the harmful legacy of residential schools on First Nations people.

Some of these efforts will be tangible and permanent, such as naming the new north commuter bridge to honour Aboriginal history and a monument to the legacy of Indigenous people in Victoria Park expected next year.

But social media reveals attitudes that we did not always see as openly in the public sphere. It suggests that even though the city's campaign may not have hit the exact right strategy, there is work to do.

A lot of tough, uncomfortable conversations lie ahead.

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