Samantha Lewis of the Lennox Island First Nation speaks at a luncheon Friday recognizing the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. Looking on are fellow panelists Digafie Debalke and Brenda Picard. Guardian photo.
Have you ever asked someone of another skin colour or accent where they are from?
You may have unwittingly made them feel excluded and marginalized.
This was one of the messages delivered at luncheon event in Stratford celebrating the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination.
The event featured three panelists who each spoke about situations where accidental or unintentional discrimination can happen.
People from foreign countries in a place like Prince Edward Island are constantly asked the question, ‘Where are you from?’
This implies they do not belong here, said panelist Digafie Debalke, who works in the UPEI international relations office.
“The way we frame the questions, it opens up the communication channels, but as soon as we exclude the person from being here, the communication breaks down,” he said.
Samantha Lewis from Lennox Island said she does not believe people should have to identify whether they are ‘from away,’ as is so often done in P.E.I.
“What are we really saying?” Lewis said.
“We First Nations do not think that way.”
She lifted up a Mi’kmaq medicine wheel - a circle divided into quarters, each quarter with a different colour – red, white, black and yellow.
The colours represent many things, including the races of man.
“Each colour has an equal part of the circle, no one colour is bigger than the other. We all have each a role to play; it has to be taught, just like prejudices have been taught.”
She said she believes children should be taught from their earliest days that all skin colours and ethnic origins should be treated equally.
Brenda Picard is the executive director of the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission.
She said many people often make comments or use phrases that are unintentionally racist or discriminatory.
But that does make it OK.
She cited examples of commonly used expressions whose origins are discriminatory.
Being ‘sold down the river,’ refers to the North American slave trade; being ‘gypped’ is a stereotyping of traditional gypsies.
“People will often say that they didn’t mean anything by these phrases, that those meanings have been lost over the years, but they still have significant ability to belittle and offend those whose origins or race are portrayed as negative by these phrases,” Picard said.
“Discrimination isn’t how it’s meant, it’s how it is received.”
All three panelists said more open dialogue is needed to break down barriers and to welcome new people, regardless of race, gender or religion, into the community.
“Being open to learning about other peoples’ culture and experience provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the impact of our own experiences and how we can be more inclusive,” Picard said.
Established six years ago, the international day for the elimination of racial discrimination is celebrated annually on March 21 with a series of events and activities worldwide. The day aims to remind people of racial discrimination’s negative consequences.