After June rally, Innisfail anti-racism advocates hope to change narrative in rural Alberta

Supporters gather for a rally in Innisfail, about 110 km north of Calgary on Saturday, June 13, 2020. About 250-300 attended the event which was originally cancelled due to online threats, then rescheduled. There were no incidents and RCMP patrolled the crowd.

For many in Innisfail, a rural Alberta town of about 8,000 just south of Red Deer, an anti-racism rally this June almost shelved due to bigoted backlash showed that a lot of change was needed.

The small town made national headlines after rally organizer Brittany Bovey was

met with racist and threatening messages

when she planned a Black Lives Matter-inspired event in her hometown in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Despite the controversy,

the rally took place without incident

, attracting hundreds of attendees from in and around Innisfail.

Pat Bidart, who has lived in Innisfail for the last 30 years, was taken aback by the vitriol surrounding the rally.

“I talked to some people who were at the rally and we said, ‘OK, we have to do something about this,’” Bidart said. “This isn’t the reputation for the community that we want … We wanted to do something about it and not just talk about it.”

Alongside some other community members, she restarted the town’s Welcoming & Inclusive Community Committee, which was first formed in 2005, previously tackling projects like welcoming refugee families into the community and diversifying food options in the town’s grocery stores.

Now, the committee is working to learn more about discrimination people of colour living in Innisfail have experienced, with the goal of starting a wider dialogue with town leaders including businesses and schools to address these problems. The group recently received $2,000 from Innisfail town council to start some community training efforts.

Running some of those training sessions are Dieulita Datus and Sadia Khan, the co-founders of Ubuntu: Mobilizing Central Alberta, a group that held anti-racism protests across central Alberta throughout June and July. The pair will host sessions on allyship and unconscious bias.

As women of colour living in central Alberta, Datus and Khan said these sessions won’t be able to stamp out racism in towns like Innisfail, but they will help empower community members to push for more change in their communities.

“We’re members of the community and we see what is needed,” Datus said. “There’s so many different nationalities present, so many different cultures, languages, people and faces, but they are not always being represented and they are not always being given a seat at the table.”

 Supporters gather for a rally in Innisfail, about 110 km north of Calgary on Saturday, June 13, 2020.

“The systemic racism is inherent in these hundreds of years old systems,” Khan added. “It will not take three hours or a day to dismantle this. This is going to take ongoing work.

“It’s going to be difficult, but it will be doable. If we can build these systems, we can unbuild them, too.”

Datus added that even though conversations around race reached a fever pitch across North America following Floyd’s death in May, activist groups in Canada and Alberta have been pushing for more anti-racism action for decades. She praised Innisfail for taking the next steps after their June rally.

“We’re tired of just talking,” she said. “We actually want people to now say, ‘OK, I hear you. What can I do, and how can we do it together?’”

Innisfail’s town council passed an Anti-Racial Discrimination & Anti-Racism Policy in late July in the wake of the town’s rally.

Even though it was racist backlash that flung Innisfail into the spotlight in June, town spokesperson Ken Kowalchuk said reaction from residents has been all positive.

“The time was right to move ahead with a policy like this,” Kowalchuk said. “We have heard of no backlash. As an organization we haven’t had any, that we know of. And I’d say that the formation of the Welcoming & Inclusive Community Committee is a sign that the community is committed to having an inclusive community that welcomes all people.”

Bidart said she’s looking forward to continuing work on the committee and within the town in upcoming months.

“I see Innisfail as a community that is open. In any community, there is some racism, it doesn’t matter if you’re in an urban centre or a rural centre. In Innisfail, we try to address issues as they happen,” she said.

“Rural communities should be great places to bring up your kids and to be able to feel comfortable whatever colour your skin is or what your religion is.”

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Twitter: @jasonfherring

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