'Actions vindicate words': Committee approves Ottawa's first anti-racism strategy

·2 min read
Suzanne Obiorah is seen here in 2020 a few months before she joined the City of Ottawa as its director of race, equity, inclusion, Indigenous relations and social development. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)
Suzanne Obiorah is seen here in 2020 a few months before she joined the City of Ottawa as its director of race, equity, inclusion, Indigenous relations and social development. (Jean Delisle/CBC - image credit)

The City of Ottawa has laid out its first-ever strategy aimed at tackling racism as it seeks equality in everything from who gets appointed to boards, to who seeks city contracts, to what types of affordable housing are built.

The plan aims to "create a fundamental shift in how we do work at the city," according to Suzanne Obiorah, the city's director of race, equity, inclusion, Indigenous relations and social development.

Obiorah pointed to many examples of systemic racism throughout society over the past two years that have been "exposed and on full display," including the disproportionately large number of people of non-white backgrounds who contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic.

The new strategy lays out 132 actions that City of Ottawa departments have already committed to, and it comes after more than a year of consultation with 1,000 residents and city employees.

For instance, the city will look at communicating election material in multiple languages, and will update its appointment policy to improve representation on its boards and at its agencies.

The strategy also sets out how the city can better support community organizations to give people more access to housing and health care, and to engage youth in high-priority neighbourhoods.

The finance and economic development committee approved the plan on Tuesday and it goes to full city council for approval on June 22.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

'Time to act'

City manager Steve Kanellakos said "we heard things we don't like to hear" during the months of conversations that led up to the strategy, such as staff members sharing experiences with racism in the workplace.

Kanellakos said he was "deeply, personally committed" to the new anti-racism strategy.

The City of Ottawa created the anti-racism secretariat in its 2020 budget at the urging of Coun. Rawlson King after a racist message was spray-painted on a family's garage door. King was named city council's liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations soon after, and Obiorah was hired in February 2021.

King said the new strategy will require everyone to call out hate, and the community that helped develop the strategy needs to see first-hand the City of Ottawa itself is actively listening.

Zuhair Alshaer addressed the committee in Arabic, saying many Muslim residents live in fear of Islamophobia and want to see steps taken to reject hatred rather than a cycle of "countless promises."

Diversity consultant Tina Walter echoed that the anti-racism strategy took hard work but was "historic, urgent and important."

"We all know it is time to act," said King. "Words are good, but actions vindicate words."

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