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Rights + Justice

A Grassroots Group Launches to Fight Delta’s ‘Uncomfortable’ Racism

In this BC city, ‘there’s no dialogue’ around systemic discrimination. Some locals are working to change that.

Michelle Gamage 6 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Michelle Gamage is a journalist and photographer based in Vancouver with an environmental beat. You can find her on Twitter here.

Kiran Sidhu was hyper-aware of her skin on June 6 as she drove into the predominantly white city of Delta for a physically distanced birthday party near Centennial Beach.

Police violence against Black, Indigenous and people of colour dominated the news. Chantel Moore had died in New Brunswick during a police “wellness check” days earlier.

But Sidhu was used to dealing with issues of race. As a teacher/co-ordinator for the Richmond School Board, she had often been the only woman of colour in the room.

Besides, this was the first time her friends were meeting since the COVID-19 lockdown and she was excited to see them.

What happened next would bring the community of 111,000 face-to-face with its racism and help spark a grassroots movement to fight back.

After the party, Sidhu was walking to her car along the beach. But the tide was coming in, and she was trapped between a row of beachfront homes and the rising water. She can’t swim and decided to scramble over some rocks in front of the homes.

And things went very wrong.

Sidhu told The Tyee a woman came out of one of the homes and told her to get off the rocks. “Can’t you read?” in reference to small nearby signs that asked people to keep off the rocks.

Sidhu said she needed to get back to her car and hadn’t seen any signs. “She told me to go home and that I didn’t belong there,” Sidhu said.

The woman then threatened to push her off the rocks, compared her body to a beached whale and threatened to spray her with a hose, Sidhu said.

“What are you going to do ‘Karen,’ call the police?” Sidhu shot back, referencing the ‘Karen’ meme that describes entitled white women.

What she didn’t know was she was talking with Lorraine Dubord, the wife of Delta Police Chief Neil Dubord.

Dubord then sprayed her in the face with a garden hose, Sidhu alleges.

“I was just shocked, I couldn’t believe she did that, I was stunned in the moment,” Sidhu said. “Then I was worried. She threatened to spray me with the hose and she actually sprayed me, and she has threatened to push me before and I was thinking, ‘Is she going to push me now?’”

Later, Sidhu called her friends who angrily confronted Dubord in a widely circulated video.

The next day Sidhu filed a complaint of assault with the Delta Police Department. On June 10, three days later, she was told the event had been “difficult for everyone involved” and Dubord’s actions had not met the threshold that would allow assault charges. Case closed.

Sidhu said the Delta officer assigned to her case didn’t tell her the investigation was focused on the wife of the police chief — their boss. She learned that from a friend. And she wondered if case had really been handled impartially.

“I was left deflated by the whole thing. I didn’t feel like they’d pursued justice for me in the right way,” Sidhu said.

Sidhu filed a complaint with the department. And only then did the Surrey RCMP take over the investigation, tasked with reviewing the Delta department’s investigation.

And on Tuesday the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner said it was also investigating how the Delta Police Department handled the case.

Sidhu, meanwhile, was struggling. She asked for support from victim services — a Delta Police service that specializes in supporting people who have experienced trauma — and a referral to a BIPOC counsellor. But she had to push for supports, explain what BIPOC meant and why it mattered.

“It feels like this whole process is tailored towards supporting and protecting white supremacy and catering to white fragility,” she said. “The system is not built to support people like me. It’s not built to support or acknowledge us at all and it’s time to change that.”

Julia Johnson Baker was thinking about the same issues when she floated the idea on Facebook of holding an anti-racism march in Delta. Johnson Baker is white, with two Black biracial daughters. She knows the targeted and unconscious racism that exists in Delta.

“There’s no dialogue around it and that’s the largest part of the problem,” she said. “People are really uncomfortable on how to speak on this. It’s not that they’re unwilling, but they have no idea how to start because it’s not something that’s been openly discussed.”

Johnson Baker wanted to change that. She reached out to two other Delta moms, Kate Henderson and Devon Young, who together created the Delta Families Against Racism private Facebook group to plan an anti-racism march. They thought a few dozen people might be interested.

Two weeks later the group’s membership had swelled to more than 1,000 people. Some 400 protestors showed up at a June 27 march at Delta City Hall.

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‘Delta has racism and we need change. No justice no peace,’ chanted the weekend crowd at the anti-racism march organized by Delta Families Against Racism, a Facebook group started by three local moms. Photos by Michelle Gamage.

The march brought likeminded people together for the first time, Henderson said. “We didn’t know each other, but now we do,” she said, adding that acknowledging the problem is one of the first steps to being anti-racist.

But not everyone in the predominantly white town agrees there’s a problem. In one Facebook group called the Tsawwassen Loop, people are pushing to create locals-only days at U-pick farms after accusing South Asian families of eating too many strawberries.

Another Facebook post tagged locals who are visible minorities in a post about a dog meat festival in China and demanded they explain the “ugly reality about their cultural practice.”

Rhiannon Bennett, a Musqueam woman, spoke at the march. “Canadian racism is executed with smiles and with nice words,” said Bennett, whose Delta business helps clients improve their relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

“I see there are a lot of government officials here today who are part of those institutions who are executing the ongoing genocide. You have work to do,” Bennett said in her speech. “The people who make up those institutions have a responsibility to make things right.”

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Rhiannon Bennett’s four-year-old daughter Mealona Williams stands with her mom at the rally. ‘It’s not the first time she’s gotten up in front of a crowd with me,’ Bennett said. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

That includes Delta Mayor George Harvie, Bennett says, accusing him of introducing policies that exclude Indigenous Peoples. The Delta Families First initiative, introduced last year, gives Delta residents a two-week head start to sign up for local parks programs. The head start is not available for anyone living on the Tsawwassen First Nation lands, which means programs can fill up before local Indigenous people have a chance to sign up, Bennett said. And it’s not like the Tsawwassen First Nation can offer its own parks programs equal to Delta’s, she added.

In the neighbourhood of Boundary Bay, where Lorraine and Neil Dubord live, the city is piloting a project to restrict non-locals from parking close to the beach.

Bennett said that kind of “locals only” access to beaches and public spaces promotes racism.

“Even if your intent isn’t to be racist or to have people think you’re making that decision from a place of racism, the impact is that people will hear the dog whistling of that and it will validate racist beliefs they have,” Bennett said in an interview after the march.

At the march, Delta Mayor Harvie said there was more work to be done to tackle racism.

“Do we have systemic discrimination in Delta? Absolutely,” he said. Harvie said he is planning a mayor’s summit on racism to bring together leaders in North and South Delta to listen, learn, “and see what I can do as my job as mayor.”

But that won’t include rolling back the two policies that Bennett finds discriminatory or reviewing the $36-million Delta police budget amidst widespread calls to defund the police. The community of 111,000 spends 31 per cent of its budget on its police and fire departments, the fourth highest percentage in the province.

“We’re very proud of our police department. We have one of the lowest crime rates, great public safety record,” Harvie said.

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Delta Mayor George Harvie says he won’t end policies that Rhiannon Bennett says are discriminatory, nor will he review the Delta Police budget amidst widespread calls across North America to defund police departments. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

Bennett shook her head at this. “How are we supposed to reconcile a relationship when many Canadians deny there is a problem?” she asked.

There isn’t any easy fix, but people can make a difference by taking the time to listen, to accept there are things they don’t know and work on learning how to be anti-racist, she said. “Ignorance in the age of information is a choice,” Bennett added.

The march was a great first step but now the real work begins, said Henderson of Delta Families Against Racism. The grassroots group has shown there is an appetite for change; now they have to work on what institutions they can hold accountable and demand change from.

There could be another anti-racism march in the works. Henderson said she was approached by Grade 12 students after the protest who had wanted to take action but weren’t sure where to start. That’s great because young people know how to navigate social media better than anyone and could help rally even more voices to the movement, Henderson said.

As for Sidhu, she says she wants to see hear a meaningful apology from Dubord beyond her brief statement issued to the Delta Optimist. She also wants to see the Delta Police Department hire more BIPOC officers, especially female ones.

This country is built on colonization and that means every industry, in every town, was built to benefit white people, Sidhu said. Canadians tend to be too polite to do the anti-racism legwork and confront racism when they see it, but that’s not being polite, she said. That’s ignorance.  [Tyee]

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