Anti-racism network grows roots in Burnaby

Shaheen Nanji remembers experiencing “very subtle” acts of racism throughout her life.

Sometimes it was an eye roll, other times it was someone overlooking her opinion.

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Nanji, who grew up in Kenya and is currently the executive director of SFU International, recalls one incident in particular when she was working for a real estate company.

“I remember chatting with one guy, and he was like, ‘All the Indian Realtors are moving, and good riddance.’ I’m sort of looking at him. He goes, ‘But you’re OK, you’re one of us,’” she said.

Anecdotes like hers are the reasons behind the creation of Burnaby’s new anti-racism and anti-hate table, which met last week for the first time.

The Ministry Responsible for Multiculturalism expanded its Organizing Against Racism and Hate program late last year to include four urban centres – Burnaby, Richmond, Vancouver and Surrey. Until that point, the program had only been available to rural communities.

The provincial government doled out more than $217,000 to 33 organizations, including Burnaby Family Life, which received $4,500. Burnaby Family Life was tasked with bringing community partners together who could develop protocols should a racist incident or hate crime occur.

“I think it’s a good start,” executive director Michel Pouliot told the NOW after the Jan. 5 meeting. “We have the right people at the table.”

Those in attendance included representatives from SFU, Burnaby Public Library, the local school district, the Burnaby Board of Trade, Burnaby Community Services, Douglas College, the City of Burnaby and Burnaby Neighbourhood House. Pouliot noted he has received a commitment from the Burnaby RCMP as well.

The inaugural get-together got everyone on the committee familiar with the table’s mandate.

“Everybody has a vision of what more could be accomplished and what the bigger impact could be,” Pouliot said.

The table will be writing a list of protocols at its next meeting in February, he added.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are some protocols out there from other communities,” he said. “Realistically, this table is not going to change the world of Burnaby. It’s going to have a very narrow focus, but at least there’s going to be a community response should any hate crime or major racism incident take place. ... Everything from when should we contact the media to make sure we make everybody in Burnaby aware of what’s happened, and why it’s an issue, or when do we work with the RCMP and the school district to talk to parents.”

Some of the provincial funding will also be used for a community event.

“It could be as simple as making sure we engage the community in a dialogue around what racism looks like, and the fact that the table exists as well, so that they know that if anything comes up, there’s a vehicle they can go through,” Pouliot explained.

Stephen D’Souza, executive director of Burnaby Community Services, wants to see Burnaby as welcoming as it can be.

“When we talk about issues, like the foreign ownership of housing, there’s sort of this undertone of racism. We want to be able to call it out when we see it; to say, are there undertones here or is this not what this conversation is about?” he said.

Nanji, also a member of the table, said it comes down to making it unacceptable to express racism.

“It’s about finding positive ways of demonstrating the importance of inclusiveness,” she said. “At some point, we were anti-Italians because there were all these new Italians coming in, and now, being part of Little Italy is a very cool thing to do, so how could we sort of reinforce that?” she said.

The committee is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 16.

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