Workshop takes aim at eliminating racism and discrimination in P.E.I.

Mitch MacDonald comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on February 28, 2016

Strong laws and legislation aren't the only tools needed to combat racism and discrimination in Canada, says a member of the Muslim Society of P.E.I.

Education and awareness are just as important in combatting cultural and institutional racism, Zain Esseghaier said during a workshop Saturday that focused on eliminating discrimination in P.E.I. and Canada.

Esseghaier said there has been much legislation created to fight racism, including the Human Rights Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Multiculturalism Act.

However, he said racism is a complex concept which can not be "solved" solely through legal means.

"You can have all kind of laws and legislation, the problem is discrimination and racism can still be persistent in society," said Esseghaier, who also works in UPEI's Faculty of Education. "I happen to be an educator and I believe strongly in education. You need the law, but you also need to create awareness and educate people."

Creating a discussion and raising awareness was the purpose behind the "transcending racism and discrimination" workshop hosted by the Council of Canadians P.E.I. Chapter and the province's Black Cultural Society at Murphy's Community Centre Saturday.

About 65 people took part in the workshop that began with a panel discussion, including Esseghaier and Julie Pellissier-Lush of the Mi'kmaq Family Resource Centre.

The panel also included Dante Bazard, Donisha Been and Keyshawn Bonamy of the Caribbean Society at UPEI.

Pellissier-Lush shared her own personal story, while the three UPEI students largely spoke of the differences between overt and covert racism.

"Overt racism is more associated with the U.S., it's up front and obvious... covert racism is more disguised," said Bazard. "You're almost putting on a smiling face but behind it there may be racist intentions. Both of them (overt and covert) lead to white supremacy and perpetuate racism."

Bazard also spoke of "systemic racism" and said that government and social institutions have to be reformed for racism to no longer exist in Canada.

"So far, our fight to end racism has only been limited to making living conditions a little bit better for minorities," he said. "We have not ended racism as a society."

The workshop saw panellists present before participants were split into small groups for discussion.

The workshop ended with a large group discussion on how to make P.E.I. a more inclusive province.

Organizer Sarah Tamula, a member of both host groups, said the workshop was encouraging and saw several recurring themes.

One common suggestion was calling for more public education around the histories of different racial groups.

"If people have the history, there's a lesser likelihood of discrimination and more understanding of where everyone is coming from," said Tamula.

During his presentation, Esseghaier said education also doesn't have to be in a classroom.

It can take many forms, he said, including events like the workshop.

"And, just speaking to people. Most of the time, people who are racist have never met members of that certain group," he said. "Once we get to know each other, I believe we tend to lower the level of discrimination and racism. Although, it can be much more complicated than that. It needs individual action but also societal action and group action."

Tamula said many involved Saturday felt the discussion has to continue, especially with many refugees and newcomers now immigrating to Canada.

She said while P.E.I. is small, it has a unique opportunity of embracing diversity and that the council may continue to host similar workshops in the future to dig deeper into the issue.

"Everyone felt the discussion has to continue. There's a lot of potential and hopefully this will lead to various groups in the community discussing it further," she said. "We need to be proactive and not be scared of talking about race. If we don't talk about it, we can't address any of these issues."