Buffalo, N.Y., taking pictures displays worsening racism, even in Canada, Winnipeg organizer says

Winnipegger Florence Okwudili says news of the deadly mass shooting at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in Buffalo, N.Y., felt like a jolt.

“It’s like a big shake, a wake-up call to see that — or to know that — we are not safe,” said Okwudili, chair of the Coalition of Manitoba Cultural Communities for Families.

Immediately, she called her children, including her son who lives in the U.S.

“To think that even when I go into a mall, that I can be a target simply because of my colour was really, really upsetting,” she said.

Police in the U.S. are investigating the attack that left 10 people dead and three wounded, and say it was racially motivated. All but two of the victims are Black.

A white 18-year-old man pleaded not guilty to murder charges during a court appearance Saturday.

Women look at a memorial for victims near the scene of a shooting at a TOPS supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. Sunday. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

While people in the U.S. deal with the horror of yet another mass killing — and another that officials say was driven by hate — members of Winnipeg’s Black community warn that something similar could happen here, because it already has.

‘Deflection strategy’

Delia Douglas pointed to the killing of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., in June 2021 as an extreme example of the kind of violence perpetrated against racialized people in Canada on a regular basis, though on a smaller and less visible scale than some incidents in the U.S.

Schools in Canada regularly teach the history of the country as a haven for Black people escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad, while ignoring the two centuries during which slavery was legal, said Douglas, an anti-racism practice lead at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, .

“The prominence of that, both as narrative and in the teaching of history — it’s really easy to look south, which means you’re not looking at yourself,” she said.

“It’s a deflection strategy. It’s a distraction. It protects and sustains white racial domination and white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in Canada.”

Okwudili, a member of Winnipeg’s Nigerian community and an organizer with the Africa pavilion of Folklorama, says Black people in this country see the telltale signs of worsening racism. 

“It’s like water boiling, you know? It starts being cold, and warm, and hot and hotter it gets.”

The kind of racism that exists in Canada can often come as a shock to newcomers, Okwudili said.

“When they come from their countries, they have no idea that they are different,” she said. 

“They have no idea that the colour of their skin makes a difference. So this is entirely new to them.” 

Education is key: Chambers

Coun. Markus Chambers, Winnipeg’s first Black city councillor and chair of the Winnipeg Police Board, says the city is working proactively to address hate crimes. 

“We’re working to educate people around race issues, recognizing that the differences that are between us are minimal, in terms of we’re more alike than we are different,” he said.

Education, Chambers said, is a key component of combating racism, and curricula should focus on the contributions people from diverse backgrounds have made to our society.

Delia Douglas is the anti-racism practice lead at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba. (Submitted by Delia Douglas)

While education is important, Douglas says there must be a multi-pronged approach to dealing with systemic racism, which takes many forms, such as discrimination in health care, housing and employment. 

“It’s about our communities, our relationships to ourselves and to each other. Are we taught and encouraged to see each other and relate to each other as equals?”

Part of that multi-pronged approach includes media representations of communities of colour, she said.

“If there were a balance of stories, you know, if we were invited to speak regularly and consistently about Black joy, Black love, Black excellence, Black flourishing, that would be one thing,” she said.

“Right now, it seems that the burden of responsibility is on those who are experiencing the trauma to also speak about the trauma — which itself is a form of trauma — and then resolve the violence.”

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