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Bridging the racial divide

A unique public dialogue discusses issues of racism in Thunder Bay.
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THUNDER BAY - As a way of addressing the growing problem of racism in Thunder Bay, organizers of a unique public discussion want to bridge the racial divide through honesty and conversation.

On Monday, more than 75 people attended a discussion at Lakehead University, Conversations Across the Racial Divide.

The event was hosted by a variety of different organizations, including Diversity Thunder Bay, the Fort William First Nation, Lakehead University’s Office of Aboriginal Initiative, Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund, the city of Thunder Bay’s Anti-Racism and Respect Committee, Racialized Young Professionals, and Youth Social Infrastructure Collaborative.

“You can’t just have a bylaw or a policy that says we’re just not going to have racism anymore, that doesn’t work, that’s not possible,” said Rebecca Johnson, co-chair of Diversity Thunder Bay. “What we can do is each individual, sitting down and having conversations at the community level, one to one, by changing people’s attitudes and making them look at racism and how to respect each other.”

The session was facilitated by Aftab Erfan, a conflict resolution specialist from Vancouver. Erfan said the purpose of the event was to bring together voices that don’t usually speak to one another.

“We know in Thunder Bay, and actually all through North America and the world, there’s this division that is happening between people who are different from each other racially, culturally, around religious lines, so the idea of this dialogue is the more they don’t talk to each other the bigger the gaps will be between them and the bigger between the possibility of not understanding each other, of violence, of all the bad things that can happen,” she said.

Erfan utilized a unique method for discussions known as deep democracy, which was created in the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa.

“We show our agreement or disagreement by walking through the space and as a result, we get a quick sense of what the views are, what are the differences, and what people are really thinking and feeling and we will have a deeper conversation,” she said.

During the session Monday afternoon, much of the crowd moved in the same direction, agreeing with others on issues relating to cultural diversity, racism, respect, and violence.

Johnson acknowledges that racism is a growing issue in Thunder Bay and she added that creating community dialogues is the best way to address it and move toward finding solutions.

“That is how it’s done, one to one, it takes a lot longer, but at the same point in time, it’s a social attitude, it’s a social feeling about things,” she said.  

“We’ve had a variety of incidents that have occurred in our community,” Johnson added. “The one in January is just one more and there’s probably been others since that point in time. But all of those identify that we have racism and it’s really an unfortunate situation. We have to come back to the community and say we don’t want this happening.”

Erfan agreed that the session on Monday is the first step in multi-step process towards creating change in any community.

“I think this is one piece of so many other things that need to happen,” she said. “There are a whole number of initiatives that are trying to do things around racism. The idea with this one, this is where the voices of people come in contact with each other.”

A second session will be held Monday evening at Ka-Na-Chi-Hih.