When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, it reawakened awareness about police violence and institutional racism in the United States and beyond. Nearly three years later, many of the anti-racist pledges made during that time remain unfulfilled.
“Do you know that most of those commitments have not been met and there is no accountability for not doing this?” said June Francis, special advisor to the president of Simon Fraser University on anti-racism, director of the Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement, co-founder of the Black Caucus at SFU and an associate professor in the Beedie School of Business. “Companies said they were going to do X,Y and Z, research shows they’re not doing it. Accountability is everything. If we don’t see change and there are no repercussions … then we get tired, society goes back.”
Francis was speaking Nov. 3 at an event titled From Talk to Action: Challenging Racism in Canada Today. The panel discussion, at Robson Square, was presented by the Simces & Rabkin Family Dialogue on Human Rights in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Equitas, an international human rights education organization.
Francis aimed a particularly sharp critique at academic institutions.
“When students arrive at a university, they are being groomed to become racist people,” she said. “I say this honestly because what they are taught is any ideas worth knowing emanate out of white supremacists. White ideas are the enlightened [ones], the primitive becomes us, our art is considered primitive, our work is always denigrated. It’s only recently that Indigenous knowledge has become a thing, only because we’ve totally destroyed the planet and now we’ve suddenly awakened and, even then, we have a certain category of it as being nonscientific. Universities are founded on these ideas that are meant to create this idea that some people are superior to others and we perpetuate this every day. Then we go on to only fund research that does that. We go on to promote people who do that research. We go on to insist that our students who dare to challenge the system don’t graduate unless they do what we tell them to do.”
Annecia Thomas, who joined Francis on the panel, was mobilized to action in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, as well as when students at her Kamloops high school made light of the murder in an online post. She was afraid to speak up, she said.
“But, I think, through this fear I gained another fear – that was not speaking up,” she said. “Without speaking up, it would just continue.”
Also on the panel was Daniel Panneton, director of allyship and community engagement at the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. He addressed online hate and how it can transmute into real-world violence, citing the case of Dylan Roof, the South Carolina man who was radicalized online and, in 2015, murdered nine people in an African-American church.
Concerns about free speech rights, which are sometimes invoked to defend racist, misogynistic or otherwise bullying behaviours online are specious, he argued. These actions effectively deter members of historically marginalized communities from running for public office and participating in the public sphere, he said.
“The tolerance of hate and threatening speech in our society threatens the free-speech rights of vulnerable communities,” said Panneton.
The panel was moderated by Niigaan Sinclair, an Anishinaabe man who is head of the department of Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba and is a frequent commentator in national media.
“I grew up as a refugee, but I didn’t know it,” he said, referring to Canadian governments who forced his ancestors off their lands. “In every other country of the world, that would be called ethnic cleansing, but in Canada they call it progress.”
He said the ultimate goal of racism is to erase its own history.
“The outcome of violence is always silence, not to talk about it, to make sure that it happens in perpetuity and that it’s somehow legal and justified,” said Sinclair.
Zena Simces and Dr. Simon Rabkin, who launched the annual series four years ago, spoke of their motivations.
“We established the dialogue on human rights because we saw a void in Vancouver with respect to a dedicated program on human rights for everyone in the community, for all groups,” said Simces, a consultant in health, social policy and education and a former leader in the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress.
“To combat racism, we first need to understand it, think about the background and understand the history,” said Rabkin, a professor at the University of British Columbia medical school who has provided health care to underserviced areas in northern Canada and in Kenya. “Talk and reflection is not enough, it won’t move us forward. We need a vision of the future in order to provide a guidepost and a goal to aim towards.”