“I was waiting at the bus stop and there were Indigenous people standing around. And I looked at the ground. I was waiting in the grocery line and there were Indigenous people in front of me and behind me. And I looked at the ground. I was with my children at the library, looking for a book. There were Indigenous people in the same aisle as me. And I looked at the ground. But after learning about Canada’s Indigenous history, after talking to Indigenous people and learning about them, I don’t look at the ground anymore. I look them in the eyes, and I say hello.” ~A newcomer’s perspective on Indigenous people, as told to Cheryl Whiskeyjack.
From Respect to Avoidance
“A newcomer told me that she was told to be afraid [of Indigenous people],” says Cheryl Whiskeyjack, Executive Director of the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, and Co-Chair of EndPovertyEdmonton’s Stewardship Round Table. “They tell me that they come to Edmonton with inherent respect for Indigenous people. But then they are taught very quickly to not engage. ‘Don’t make eye contact, don’t look up, just don’t.’”
Whiskeyjack says that because of this lesson, newcomers may feel uncomfortable about forging friendships with community members who might seem different from them. In recalling this experience, Whiskeyjack says that these sorts of attitudes teach us to be afraid of each other. When we become isolated in our own community groups, we don’t necessarily get to learn about each other, and connect to opportunities in wider communities - and feelings of mistrust can grow. Which can make it especially difficult for people in poverty, particularly racialized folks, to find the required support from the community, Indigenous people and newcomers alike.
“There are so many people on the margins who need to access different forms of support in order to survive,” says Irfan Chaudhry, Director of the Office of Human Rights, Diversity, and Equity at MacEwan University. “Race definitely has a role to play in poverty...There are indirect ways of how race creates barriers that block people from accessing resources.”
We believe that every Edmontonian should have the opportunity to participate fully in our city. And currently, there is a higher percentage of people of visible minority and Indigenous backgrounds who are experiencing poverty. “Many of our social problems are rooted in racism - from poverty to inequality to ill health,” says Lucenia Ortiz, Social Development Planner with the City of Edmonton, and one of EndPovertyEdmonton’s collaborators. “Indigenous people and racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty. Limited opportunities enable a cycle of poverty from generation to generation. Often, persistent racist attitudes and practices, overt and systemic, make the experience of poverty more painful and traumatic.”
Ending racism has become a pressing, moral problem for our community, and as Edmontonians, it is something we need to work together to solve in order to end poverty in our city. Chaudhry says that a person’s race can directly or indirectly affect their ability to move past the poverty they’re experiencing. “Sometimes folks face discrimination to access housing because of how they present racially. For example, an Indigenous person inquires about a space to live. They check it out in person, and the landlord says ‘Sorry, it’s been rented already.’”
“It’s a two-way street,” says Whiskeyjack. “Our community wears a negative cloak that inhibits them from asking for help, or accessing resources, because they are burdened with these negative stereotypes and narratives. It’s hard to overcome.” But this cloak also affects how we offer help and support to the people in need in our own neighbourhood. “There are real barriers that we have to face, which are made worse by stereotypes and negative narratives,” says Whiskeyjack.
Time to Act
As Ortiz says, it’s up to all of us to make sure this kind of discrimination doesn’t keep happening. “It is our individual and collective responsibility to eliminate racism in our city,” says Ortiz. To that end, EndPovertyEdmonton has made the ending of racism in Edmonton a high priority in our strategy. Aptly named, the Eliminate Racism Game Changer serves to directly address the many ways that keep visible minority and Indigenous Edmontonians in the cycle of poverty. Indeed, one third of the actions we’re taking, as part of our EndPovertyEdmonton Strategy, are focused on this Game Changer.
Ortiz explains that “the first four actions [work] towards true reconciliation, and acknowledge the rights of Indigenous People to live and thrive in their own land. These actions also aim to remove intergenerational barriers so that they can enjoy prosperous lives, be proud of their history and culture and be significant participants in the civic life of our community.” EndPovertyEdmonton is also working with the Edmonton Police Service and City staff to make sure that systems and policies are in place that treat all Edmontonians fairly.
These actions came out of conversations and suggestions from Edmontonians like you - all as a means of transforming Edmonton from just a city to a welcoming community that cares about their fellow citizens. And “having these conversations before there’s an issue - there’s a real power in that,” says Whiskeyjack.
Start by Smiling
So, Edmonton, the challenge is up to all of us. Instead of looking at the ground, let’s shed our negative cloaks and greet our fellow Edmontonians with a smile. Let’s change the way we think about our fellow citizens, to make racism a thing of the past. With your help, we can end racism - and poverty in a generation.