A letter from a citizen prompted a debate about racism at a virtual meeting of city councillors Monday.
Tshweu Moleme, one of the organizers of Saturday’s Black Lives Matter rally in Orillia, wrote a letter imploring council to be “brave” enough to condemn racism and work to “combat racism” in our community.
“We're in a pivotal moment in history, and it is my hope that I can look back, some day in the future, and say, ‘council of the day stood up, they were there for me, my brothers, and sisters,’" wrote Moleme, who ran for city council in the last municipal election.
He was happy to see council do just that.
“The sad reality is racism is still prevalent in our society, even in Orillia, even if we don’t all see it,” said Coun. Jay Fallis
“I hope this gives us an opportunity to reflect on the systems we have in place in Orillia and hopefully move towards improving them and making them more sensitive,” he said.
“I personally believe focusing and investment in more social services and also mental health supports from all levels of government can be one significant way we work towards improving the system we have in place,” said Fallis.
“This is, of course, not just an Orillia issue but one we can start to tackle right here at home if we work at it.”
That sentiment was echoed by other council members.
Pat Hehn, who said she was “frightened and disheartened” by accounts shared on her Facebook page from people in Orillia who experienced “acts of racism against them,” said council has a role to play.
"We do have the opportunity to make a difference in our community and I think we should be looking forward and forming a committee to see what we can do in our community to make things better,” said Hehn.
Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke said he would use his office, over the next two years, to try to improve the issue.
“I can tell you, racism - I don’t get it. I don’t understand it,” said the mayor. “I don’t know how the colour of somebody’s skin can negatively affect the decisions and actions and directions negatively. I’ve never understood it.”
But he has seen it and witnessed its impact. And, he said, it’s time to do something.
“We as a council can implore and lobby our municipal partners to bring curricula of these different issues (education about Black and Indigenous history) up to a meaningful standard so there is an accurate reflection of those two histories,” said Clarke.
“I do believe with education, some of these issues will be resolved,” said the mayor.
Coun. Ralph Cipolla also thought education was critical - and should be started in Grade 1.
“Unless we do that, it’s going to continue,” said Cipolla, whose daughter is a teacher in Toronto.
“She said ‘Dad it’s got to start at a younger age for these children to understand what our society is made up of.’"
Council agreed and voted to refer the matter to the mayor’s office for appropriate action.
It’s not clear what that action would be but Clarke said it could mean making a proclamation, sending a letter to the minister of education - among other strategies.
Moleme said he was pleased with council’s decision.
“Based on what I heard from councillors that spoke on the issue during last night's meeting, I can say that they do understand the moment we are in and it is my hope that they will work with me and other Black leaders in the area, to find a positive, concrete way forward, as we fight Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous racisms,” said Moleme.
He told OrilliaMatters he has some ideas for what council might do.
“I would like for the city to look at what is happening within our own community, as it relates to BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour) living in our community,” said Moleme, a Unifor union representative at Casino Rama.
“As noted by our speakers at our event this past weekend, Orillia has got some work to do, and there's plenty of room for improvement. Concerns ranged from racism at school, in the community, landlords, police-resident relations, and so on,” he said.
“Council did indicate that they will be moving swiftly on education, which is an extremely important area and start,” Moleme said.
“They will be penning and sending a letter to our Minister of Education, to pressure the province to move on changes around school curricula. I take this to refer to the decolonization of our education system.
“This is not a new call, but with more letters, such as Orillia's, at the minister's desk, real change is possible. This is an important and significant step,” said Moleme.
While a proclamation would be “a positive gesture,” Moleme said he would “like to see such an event accompanied by a report/study, annually, to show where Orillia is as relates to BIPOC issues.”
He said “a proclamation is indeed a wonderful thing, but it'll be nice to ask and answer, at that event, where are we now?”
He is hoping council will develop an action plan that includes improved education (from BIPOC archives at the library to more diverse messages in city publications), anti-racism campaigns, reimagining safety for BIPOC in our community, addressing issues around policing and other issues.
Moleme said he is passionate about working with the municipal government to help bring change.
“I love our city and when I see something broken in our community, I'd rather find a way to fix it,” said Moleme.
“We are going to have to have hard conversations. I am hearing from many BIPOC in Orillia, who've been living in fear,” he said. “It is painful and I will do all I can to help change this.”