Trudging through slush with a handful of others on a ceremonial walk to City Hall for a flag-raising ceremony. Shivering in the cold while watching the Police Pipe Band, braving freezing temperatures in their kilts. Sitting in the Intercity mall, handing out brochures and trying to engage people in conversation. These are my first memories of celebrations in Thunder Bay for March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism.
We were a small determined group brought together once a year by the Program Officer for Heritage Canada to co-ordinate activities for March 21 – a day set aside by the United Nations to commemorate the killings of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid “pass laws.” International communities now come together on this day to focus on eliminating all forms of racial discrimination.
In Northwestern Canada though, it’s hard enough to get people to look past the biting temperatures, let alone something different than what they’ve grown up with. Was there a better way to get our message across? With a small grant, we organized a community breakfast, in partnership with the Baha’i community. It was a warm, friendly gathering that increased our determination to focus on eliminating racism on an ongoing basis – not just on March 21.
Shortly thereafter, we conducted a survey to assess support for forming a grassroots community organization to be called ‘Diversity Thunder Bay’. The proposed group would work year-round to make Thunder Bay a community free of racism and discrimination.
The fledgling organization procured funding to do a study that showed the face of racism in the city. Some corporate and political leaders were uneasy, even hostile. Any mention of racism would show the city in a bad light. However, the research done was compelling and highlighted a need for change. It led to a four-year ‘Diversity in Policing’ project with the Thunder Bay Police Service.
Every year though, we were still finding ourselves having to do the same community outreach activities. Working on issues of racism was often painful and discouraging. We needed to celebrate the small victories. What about another breakfast? Would people pay to attend a meal and hear about racism? In 2006, we organized what was to be our First Annual Celebration Breakfast.
The timing was right. Among others, the Chief of Police was now acknowledging systemic racism. A member of City Council was an active member of Diversity Thunder Bay. The response was such that we had to move to a larger venue at the last moment.
Speakers such as former Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish have combined hard messages with notes of hope. With each Breakfast, the membership of Diversity Thunder Bay has slowly increased. As we celebrate our 10th anniversary this March, we expect 500 people to attend. It is a far cry from a dozen brave souls standing around a flag pole.
The Breakfast is now generously supported by sponsorships from local businesses. A deserving individual or organization receives an award as part of the ‘respect’ campaign, created jointly by the City of Thunder Bay Anti-Racism and Respect Committee and Diversity Thunder Bay.
After my retirement, I continued as a member of Diversity Thunder Bay. At meetings, I heard Muslims greeting each other in the traditional way. I learned from Aboriginal people about “the look” they receive when using their status cards. I had come to realize that Thunder Bay was a diverse community but also a divided one.
Despite the challenges we face, at each Celebration Breakfast I feel a sense of pride in what has been accomplished. What began as a meeting I attended because of my job led me to new friendships, new experiences and increased knowledge and understanding of my community. My life continues to be enriched as the journey continues, working together to make Thunder Bay a community where diversity is accepted and valued, a community no longer divided.