KITCHENER – Mayor Berry Vrbanovic has cancelled a Black History Month dinner with members of the local Black community after one local group said the dinner was a weak gesture that was hastily put together and wasn’t inclusive.
“There is a long history of political leaders placating the community with food,” said Fitsum Areguy, a local activist and member of the African, Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region.
“It is deeply racist.”
What members of the group wanted instead was an opportunity to have open discussions with the mayor and the city about how it can address anti-Black racism. The group also asked the mayor to cancel the dinner.
“The city has done very little work on anti-Black racism,” Areguy said.
The African, Caribbean and Black Network is a grassroots organization that advocates for the entire local Black community and works to reduce barriers they may face in their day-to-day lives.
Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said he cancelled the dinner after hearing from many concerned members of the local Black community late last week. The network had asked him to cancel it as well.
“Clearly that wasn’t the right approach, so let’s pause and do the right thing,” he said.
The dinner, planned for this coming week at a local restaurant, came about after a member of the city’s new task force on equity, diversity and inclusion reached out to the mayor’s office and said the city wasn’t doing enough to acknowledge Black History Month.
Vrbanovic said city staff were pressed for time, so a large-scale event wasn’t possible.
The informal dinner was an idea presented to them by a member of the task force, so invitations were sent out to more than a dozen people with a week’s notice.
“In retrospect, we should have taken more time,” Vrbanovic added.
In a letter he wrote to the members of the group, Vrbanovic said: “I know that over the years, the City of Kitchener has not done enough to advance anti-Black racism initiatives and policies within our organization. We need to do better and are committed to doing better.”
Areguy said the group was pleased with the mayor’s response, as well as his commitment to sit down with the local group to come up with recommendations to address anti-Black racism that can be taken to city council.
“I’m glad we pushed for a result. This is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Areguy said while there is a place for celebratory festivals like Bring on the Sunshine, held at city hall every year, it isn’t the only way to acknowledge Black History Month.
Black communities across the country continue to face discrimination in education, health care and employment, Areguy said.
“It is not a conversation that is happening and that is what we want to see change.”
He also noted that Black people are stopped by police more often than their white counterparts.
In a community that represents only two per cent of the population, black individuals make up nine per cent of police interactions in Waterloo Region.
That data is from a 2016 analysis by The Record that examined the documented race of individuals stopped by police over the span of a decade.
Areguy acknowledges police interactions do not fall under the purview of the city, but he noted there are city-led programs that force police interactions with marginalized youth.
One example is the city’s community outreach program. It connects youth in low-income neighbourhoods with police officers and firefighters.
Areguy said it forces even more surveillance of youth in vulnerable communities that happen to be where many local Black populations live.
“This is a mostly positive thing, but there is no conversation about how it can be a negative thing,” he said.
“We see this in many ways to be an instance of anti-Black racism,” he added.
On the larger conversation about anti-Black racism in general, Vrbanovic said he is hopeful the dialogue with the local activist group will lead to some meaningful change in how the city can help.
He said conversations with the group can include looking at ways the city can change:
• Whether it needs to review any of the city’s operational practices;
• If there is advocacy that can be done beyond the city.