Systemic racism and discrimination negatively impact Northern Ontario’s ability to attract and retain skilled workers and have far-reaching effects on the region’s economic prosperity.
That was the sentiment expressed by a group of panelists at Northern Policy Institute’s second annual population growth conference held this week.
“Racism exists everywhere, but I think in Northern Ontario, it’s easier to see because it’s harder to hide. The diversity just isn’t here like it is in southern Ontario or elsewhere,” said Hediyeh Karimian, co-founder of ULU and developer of an e-learning platform called The Woke Age Project.
“There are a lot of benefits to living in the north, like cheaper housing and more employment opportunities, but it’s really hard for people to want to stay here if they have negative experiences. We need to do a better job of making it more inclusive and more welcoming.”
The north needs a community-engaged model, she added, to make opportunities more accessible to newcomers and to educate individuals about their role in dismantling systemic racism.
Karimian was one of four speakers on the Anti-Racism and Discrimination panel at NPI’s Magnetic North 2021 forum, which took place online this week.
The forum was a follow-up to last year’s Come North Conference that aimed to discuss population growth strategies and examine the challenges and expectations of new arrivals to their communities.
This year’s conference consisted of a series of virtual panels, breakout rooms, and presentations. Stakeholders had the chance to revise and adapt their strategies and priorities and determine next steps.
“Of the 11 census districts in northern Ontario, all of them are currently experiencing labour shortages, population decline, or population aging,” said an NPI report published in February 2020.
“If the north fails to improve its population retention and attraction numbers, northern communities will become economically unsustainable in their current form.”
Welcoming immigrants to the region and creating more opportunities for the local BIPOC community are viable solutions to this issue, but it also comes with its own set of challenges.
NPI recognizes that racism and discrimination are real barriers, and to effect positive change, panelists said there is a need to begin having difficult conversations.
“There are a few things, both in my research and in my work that I’ve come across regularly, and one is housing. For newcomers with larger families, I think it’s harder to get housing here that is up to living standards,” said Karimian.
“I also think it’s important to talk about accessibility issues, one being transportation. Being able to get to and from work or school is crucial. Sudbury has the worst bus system – I have employees who work with me who have to bus an hour before they start their shift.”
Other barriers include access to culturally informed healthcare, mental health resources, childcare services and community supports like food banks.
BIPOC and immigrant workers also need supportive environments and employment that give them the chance to grow and progress in their roles.
“Microaggressions are probably far worse than overt, explicit forms of racism and discrimination that we face on a daily basis because it’s like a thousand cuts chipping away at your mental health, self-worth, and sense of belonging,” said Rimaz Abakar, an associate with Black Northern Consulting in Sault Ste. Marie.
“We can talk about barriers like housing, transportation, and health care, but being constantly reminded that you are ‘the other’ in your community takes a toll.”
In a heartbreaking example, Karimian shared the experience of a Black family whose son was being bullied in the schoolyard. His classmates approached him one day and said that they wanted to play “slave.”
“That is a real story that happened in the City of Greater Sudbury just before COVID-19 hit. Can you imagine being a parent in that situation?” she said.
Wayne Neegan, the community communication liaison officer for Constance Lake First Nations, relayed his own story during the panel about an incident of racism he experienced at a restaurant where a patron made an offensive gesture in his direction.
“We need to be a bit more progressive in our thinking. I don’t think we can tackle systemic racism by simply hosting panels, and developing new policies in the workplace,” said Karimian.
She said that we need to start doing a better job educating young people in our schools, teaching the public about systemic racism, and engaging local institutions and organizations to effect change.
“As a community, we need to work together to tackle these issues. Systemic racism is like a big fat onion, and every single person is a part of that system. In order to dismantle that system, we all need to play a role. Everyone can do something.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star