In search of a city council that's willing to disrupt systemic discrimination in Edmonton

·4 min read
Alain Intwali is a Rwanda-born mixing engineer, musician and a host of an Edmonton podcast called Building Bridges. (Sam Martin/CBC News - image credit)
Alain Intwali is a Rwanda-born mixing engineer, musician and a host of an Edmonton podcast called Building Bridges. (Sam Martin/CBC News - image credit)
<cite>(CBC)</cite>
(CBC)

Getting people to talk about community issues in Edmonton is Alain Intwali's way of building a bridge to a better future.

For more than seven months, he and other hosts of the Building Bridges podcast have been leading conversations with city leaders and business owners.

Even police Chief Dale McFee has been on the show, answering questions about discrimination, racism and police interactions posed by listeners who were keen to have the ear of the city's top law enforcement officer.

"We try to do our best to connect as we can," said Intwali, a music producer and community organizer.

Intwali said the podcast is about starting conversations so that people can feel heard and change can happen.

"The little steps that we've taken, we've seen them make changes."

Conversations about systemic discrimination and other issues are something many Edmontonians want the new mayor and city council to tackle after this fall's municipal election, according to a recent municipal poll commissioned by CBC Edmonton.

Of the 900 people surveyed, 73 per cent said addressing systemic discrimination was highly important. The issue was among the top five priorities of people.

Turning conversations into change

The importance given to systemic racism by poll respondents should be sending a strong message to candidates as they prioritize the issues they want to address in the campaign, says an Edmonton diversity expert.

"If systemic discrimination isn't within your top four or your top five [points], then there's a disconnect," said Irfan Chaudhry, director of the office of human rights, diversity and equity at MacEwan University.

But it would be problematic if a candidate is seen as hopping on a buzzword bandwagon instead of presenting the issue authentically, he added.

"If you're not sincere about it, my opinion is don't even touch it," he said, "because you're likely to cause more harm than good."

Adopting task force recommendations

Chaudhry said the new city council will need to commit to tackling systemic discrimination, a feat that will require council members to have an understanding of how current civic policies, practices and organizations are part of the problem.

"Our leaders need to be informed of those dynamics, not just thinking a blanket approach will work — because it does not," he said.

Irfan Chaudhry, a human rights expert at MacEwan University, says candidates who choose to include racism and discrimination issues need to be authentic.
Irfan Chaudhry, a human rights expert at MacEwan University, says candidates who choose to include racism and discrimination issues need to be authentic.(Sam Martin/CBC News)

"Now with the new transition of leadership at the mayor level, it'll be really important to make sure that's also a priority."

Last year, after councillors heard from 142 speakers at a public hearing on racism in policing, the city formed a task force to address systemic discrimination and racism and how they fit into community safety and well-being.

Among the task force's 14 recommendations were suggestions that directly addressed race and systemic discrimination issues, such as updated hiring processes and deterrents to unnecessary use of force by police, peace and bylaw officers.

The task force called for freezing the current level of police funding until the budget aligns with comparable cities like Ottawa, Winnipeg and Hamilton.

The suggestion to freeze police funding did not resonate with respondents in the CBC poll.

About 44 per cent of those surveyed wanted to increase the police budget, while 37 per cent said the budget should stay the same.

Looking ahead

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, said addressing systemic discrimination will take commitment from the next council.

"A lot of work has happened already," she said. "[Next is] to pass that baton on and make sure that the work continues beyond the fall."

Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, says good work has happened and now it&#39;s time to &#39;pass the baton.&#39;
Cheryl Whiskeyjack, executive director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, says good work has happened and now it's time to 'pass the baton.'(Sam Martin/CBC News)

Edmontonians will head to the polls on Oct. 18 and Intwali hopes that many candidates make an effort to address systemic discrimination.

"We just have to stay optimistic because I've seen things come and go in terms of politics. Everything is about 'what's going to get me voted in' — and it's not about can we actually sit down and solve issues," he said.

"But it's not too late to lose heart. You can only hope in this case."

CBC News' random survey of 900 City of Edmonton residents was conducted between March 29 and April 14, 2021 by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The margin of error is +/-3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger. The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online.