Is Edmonton getting more racist?

Last weekend our city made national headlines when a white supremacist group organized a rally downtown. Groups like these organize under the banner of “white pride” now to make their objectives seem heartwarming. This was their way of marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, by defending the rights of white people to have privileges over everybody else.

I joined the anti-racist rally opposing this group, essentially to say I don’t want to live in the community they’re dreaming of. Given the potential for violence, it was pretty innocuous, and the white supremacist demonstrators went underground before I even saw them. But a lot of people told me how surprised they were this was happening in Edmonton, and it raises the question: is racism gaining ground in Edmonton?

Honestly, the attention this event got says more about what stories make easy headlines than what our city is becoming. An open call in a public square for white power is pretty shocking, and makes an easy soundbite. All around the city though, there’s hard, slow work going on to actually weave together a city where cultural differences are embraced.

Kathryn Lennon shows off the teahouse
Kathryn Lennon, one of the Multicultural Teahouse organizers, shows off one of their handsome teapots.

The very same day, just a few blocks away in McCauley, there was a test-run of an idea for a Multicultural Teahouse. A cozy little place called the Pacific Cafe was occupied for the day to build a gathering space for people from different cultures to sit and chat over a cup of tea and traditional treats from Russia, Vietnam, and the Middle East.

I tried a Vietnamese tea and matching gooey dessert called Pandan cake, which came adorned with a leaf. Fortunately my friends and I were given a table with some people who had connections in the kitchen, so we got to try another four or five plates of grape leaf rolls and fried cakes after that.

The idea was created by some of the people behind the Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op, including my friend Kathryn Lennon. They’re trying to build momentum for a regular location to allow people to gather and build relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. They want it to have green spaces where people can help grow the food. And they see it as part of both the downtown redevelopment and the McCauley Revilization Strategy.

This kind of work takes planning and effort, and it doesn’t shock you the same way a headline about a racist rally might. I know that it took months of work to get all the volunteers, the location, the food, the musicians, and the art together for the teahouse. But I’d argue that this kind of slow, deliberate community-building is changing Edmonton more than any rally can.

Vivian Giang writes on a whiteboard
UN Association in Canada's Vivian Giang leading one of the Multimedia and Multiculturalism workshops

Once the protest signs are put away, only a few slogans and numbers resonate in people’s minds. Afterward though, there are people like Vivian Giang putting together things like the Multimedia & Multiculturalism project, trying to brainstorm ideas to get more diverse voices represented in the media. 

Her organization, the UN Assocation in Canada, is offering media internships to youth from under-represented ethno-cultural communities this summer (I have a note up about it this week under Community). Those experiences have the potential to leave the TV station or newspaper that hosts them – and the intern – with a better understanding of how to capture a more inclusive spread of voices in our reporting.

There’s the Injera Initiative Soccer Match coming up tonight — an effort from folks in the Somali community to build better relationships with the police, and shake off the gang violence image they’ve been getting in Edmonton, by playing soccer with EPS officers. There’s Councillor Amarjeet Sohi’s Racism Free Edmonton group. There’s Centre for Race and Culture’s March for Understanding. There are the friendships started at teahouses that spill out of their doors.

Rallies make for easy headlines. Community-building is harder to tell a flashy story about. But I think the latter is not only more important, it’s doing more to shape what race and culture will mean in Edmonton.

Do you agree? How surprised were you that the white pride rally was organized here?

One thought on “Is Edmonton getting more racist?

  1. Thanks for this! The teahouse is such a great initiative and I completely agree that this kind of community building does much more than a rally. There is so much happening in this city! It’s not easy, but with so many committed folks doing so many different things, it feels hopeful.

    I think what has been missing from the larger coverage of the rally story that is a history and context of white power movements in Alberta. They had a strong presence in the province in the 90’s and it took a lot of organizing to get them out. That history isn’t very well known for many reasons, including safety. It’s something that isn’t really talked about, but that definitely exists. It’s hard to know how much attention to pay to them because they don’t have huge numbers, but at the same time they are violent and will directly target people.

    This website has info on keeping an eye on them in Edmonton.

    I wonder if one of the other benefits of things like the teahouse is they provide an opportunity for people to informally share these kinds of histories.

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