Perth County continues public engagement to develop inclusivity, anti-racism charter

·7 min read

PERTH COUNTY – Four public roundtables were part of the public engagement process Perth County staff has been utilizing during the development process of a charter for diversity, inclusion and anti-racism. The Listowel Banner attended the third roundtable on March 30.

Although the roundtable discussions were open to members of the public to share their experiences with racism and exclusion, the participants at the third roundtable were municipal employees from North Perth and Perth County, and Stratford Social Services, Avon Maitland District School Board (AMDSB) and the Multicultural Association of Perth Huron (MAPH).

The roundtable discussions were facilitated by Dharshi Lacey, Director Equity, Inclusion & Governance for Pillar Non-profit Network with assistance from Marissa Ouelette, marketing and communication assistant at Pillar Non-profit Network.

Lacey has worked for over 20 years in the non-profit sector and has spent much of that time in diversity, inclusion and equity works. She has facilitated sessions with boards and organizations to help them embed an inclusive lens in their leadership and operational work.

“I’m an immigrant myself and have been working in equity and inclusion work for the better part of 20 years in some shape or form, so this is not just my job but it is also kind of passion work for me so I’m looking forward to spending some time unpacking this for you,” she said.

Lacey set the tone for discussions by asking people to speak from their own experience and to own both their intentions and their impact.

“When you say something and you may or may not have intended to have it received a certain way… be willing to own the impact that a statement you may have made has on somebody else,” she said.

She asked people to try to not get defensive but to say “I didn’t intend that, let me understand more.”

The discussions at the roundtables started with high-level general perceptions in Perth County – Who does the county serve? Who is most comfortable? Who might find it difficult to fit in?

The roundtable broke into two smaller groups to talk about these questions.

Some of the ideas raised by the first group were that there are many rural residents with a wide range of individuals making up the community from Mennonites to the trendier community around Stratford. The group acknowledged newcomers could be comfortable in a small town but there could be difficulties fitting in. They suggested that in urban areas there are more diverse resources such as access to health care, mental health supports, a variety of food, diverse languages and individuals who share similar cultures which people to rural communities may not have the same access to.

They noted that Perth County is seeing a really big impact because of the difficulties people are having fitting in and it is detrimental to the community’s health because people don’t always know where they can access resources and there can also be difficulties communicating due to language barriers.

The second group said it recognized how institutions and policies have developed in Perth County to support the agriculture sector and acknowledged that most people involved in that area are of European descent.

There was agreement with the point made by the first group that in rural areas some resources which may be taken for granted in urban areas are not available. One example raised is that intake for social services sometimes has to include a translator who has to come from a larger urban centre such as Kitchener.

“We do settle a lot of newcomers and refugees and the reason why they want to come and stay in areas like Perth County is that it is more similar to what they are used to but it’s just unmodernized,” said Amina Musa, refugee coordinator with MAPH. “Bringing them to other places like Toronto or Montreal – it’s just going to be worse for them so at least they are used to farming so they should be in such areas.”

She said newcomers like to have the opportunity to raise their families in rural areas and not big cities just like many other residents of Perth County.

“That’s the main reason why we settle most of the newcomers into rural areas,” said Musa. “You’ve pointed out issues of transportation, issues of language barriers, issues of culture shock.”

She mentioned that internationally Canada is perceived as a multicultural country so when newcomers arrive and face racism it’s a shock to them.

“I came to Canada when I was 15 years old and I do face a lot of racism… but this is the anxiety coming to Canada,” said Musa. “When they see all these things it’s just like a slap in their face. Some of them are educated… but to get told by their hosts they cannot go further their education.

“There is a lack of knowledge of what their rights are.”

She said there needs to be education for both Canadians and newcomers.

Lacey said the perspective Musa gave about people settling in smaller communities because that is what would be comfortable and familiar is important to the discussion.

The issue of linguistic accessibility in AMDSB was raised and it was suggested there should be more translators involved in the education process.

From there the discussion moved on to the possibility of more diverse involvement in government at the municipal level either through being elected or being involved in committees.

“The more the voice of the minority is heard at the municipal level when decisions are being made means they can be included in it,” said Musa.

She added that in her experience a diversity policy sounds good but if it is just a paper policy and is never acted on it will not effect change.

“We need to have accountability and transparency in terms of diversity and inclusion,” she said.

The second breakout discussion was about what success would look like and asked participants to finish the sentence: ‘Perth County is inclusive because…’

The first group said success would be when everybody is heard and valued.

The second breakaway group said the county would be inclusive when a diversity committee was established in the municipality. They also said success would be achieved when there are accountability and transparency and a level of trust is developed in the community.

They discussed the point of views of people who are part of the municipality and acknowledged some individuals don’t feel supported so it can be difficult to get those members of the community to respond so that group concluded that success would be establishing trust between the community and the municipal level of government.

“That’s a really important conversation about the fact that just because you want to strike a committee it doesn’t mean that everybody is going to be jumping up and down saying pick me, pick me because it takes a while for people to feel the trust,” said Lacey.

The third breakout session asked participants to discuss what would people like to see from the county as policymakers. Only one breakout group was formed as several people had left the round table by this point.

The group looked at the situation from the perspective of being an employer and dealing with employees. They said in this scenario they want to see more diversity in the workforce and that it can be improved through education and increased flexibility.

In the discussion, they spoke of the rigid design of governments and how newer generations are not accepting this rigidity and are demanding flexibility and change. They compared the importance of inclusive policies to the accessibility policies which were introduced over the past 10 to 15 years and they said you have to be diverse to be accessible.

Lacey finished the roundtable by mentioning four points about the development of the charter people can reflect on. The charter will be a starting point and not the end goal.

The charter will be a tool to communicate the county’s commitment to equity, inclusion and anti-racism. It will be a guidance document for initiating equity and inclusion initiatives through the county divisions, and it will help each county division when developing annual business plans and support council decision making through the application of an equity, inclusion and anti-racism lens.

For those in Perth County who were not able to participate but would still like to have an opportunity to have their experiences recognized in the development of the charter, a survey is available at Perthcounty.ca/charter.

A printed copy can be made available by contacting 1-800-463-8275.

Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner