3. Combating Hate in Alberta
By Dick Chamney
In September of 1990, a group known as "The Brotherhood of Regularly People" (also know to police as the Brotherhood of Racial Purity) hosted Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan members from Alberta and Saskatchewan at a farm just outside Provost, Alberta for what was described by local organizers as an "Aryan fest". Although the event drew fewer than thirty participants, it did attract national media coverage and for several nights the image of Provost, Alberta in national television news clips and newspaper headline was one of a burning thirty foot cross. The incident left community residents in various states of shock, confusion, anger and fear and, more generally, with a feeling of shame and powerlessness.
Local and provincial responses to the incident were anything but consistent. Many local people felt violated by the fact that this sort of activity could take place in their community. Others felt the media was responsible for making a spectacle of Provost. Some people were too frightened to speak about the incident and others wanted to march in the streets to protest the Aryan fest.
Alberta's Solicitor General ordered RCMP to maintain a "low profile" during the Provost event and other provincial departments suggested "ignore them, don't give them more attention than they deserve". It is difficult to ignore an incident that leaves people sick at heart, angry and afraid.
One local group that was adamant about making a statement of protest against racism was the student body at Provost Public School. Within two days of hearing that the Aryan fest was coming to their community, student leaders organized an in-school demonstration which called for students to wear black in opposition to racism. An overwhelming majority of students responded and the school principal supported them by providing an assembly for students to gather and speak about the impact of the forthcoming event, their community's image and their personal feelings. This was the first large voice in the community that spoke in concert and said “NO, this is wrong. We don't accept racism. It is not and will not be tolerated in our school and it does not reflect the feelings of Provost students.”
A second local group to express concern was the Town of Provost Economic Development Committee. This committee was engaged in trying to attract industry, commerce and a diversity of human services to the community. They were, specifically at this time, attempting to recruit physicians to the Provost area. A burning thirty foot cross on national television was not an attractive introduction to Provost, particularly for people who were not from a white or white-Christian culture.
The Economic Development Committee wanted to let prospects know that racial and religious discrimination were not representative of the policies of the Town of Provost or its business community.
It became apparent to some community leaders that there was a significant number of groups and individuals who would like the image of their community and themselves to be more accepting and welcoming than the image created by the Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan one weekend in September, 1990. It was also acknowledged that people are generally reluctant to speak out in a public "soapbox" manner, particularly regarding controversial, even dangerous, issues, but, given an opportunity to share ideas and concerns in a less threatening and supportive environment, people might be more willing to express themselves.
I recall the comment of a woman from the Chinese community in Calgary while we were working at developing a "Cultural Ambassadors" program for the Alberta Multiculturalism Commission. She said, "this program is not about ambassadors, it's about racism. It has taken me two years to develop the confidence and courage to say that.”
Remembering that people often need a safe environment to face frightening issues was the cornerstone of the community's action plan and certainly, very significant to its success.
Building For Success
A small planning group was formed through the coordination of Provost and District Family and Community Support Services. The group included teachers, church leaders, community service board members, youth leaders, seniors and chamber of commerce members. By the time this group met, one provincial government organization -- the Alberta Multiculturalism Commission -- had also contacted the community to offer assistance.
In the committee's discussion about effectively responding to the Aryan fest and cross burning, some guiding principles began to emerge:
• a reactive, confrontational approach may frighten and alienate as many as it attracted and further disturb the community. A positive, proactive approach would serve the community better than drawing "battle lines"
The concept of providing a forum that would allow people to speak to these questions evolved: "If we are not a community of racists and bigots, then who are we?... What do we want our community to be like?... Who do we see ourselves interacting with the rest of the people on this planet?... And, what do we need to do to ensure our vision of ourselves materializes?"
• a truly effective response would have to be seen (and felt) as "the community's response" rather than that of a special interest group.
Invitations to participants included significant representation from community leaders and authorities. The mayors, reeve and councils of surrounding municipalities, school trustees, hospital board members, church leaders, chamber of commerce and CEOs from all of Provost's major public institutions were invited as well as representatives from the petrochemical industry that supports a major share of Provost's economy. Any kind of common statement from this cross section would certainly be "legitimized" as a community statement.
• a recognized and respected authority would help establish a common values base that participants could share and be comfortable with through the forum
Planning committee members invited Mr. Fil Fraser, First Commissioner of Alberta's Human Rights Commission to open the forum. It was not coincidental that, while this planning was taking place, Mr. Fraser, the Human Rights Commission and the Alberta Legislature were honoring a group of Provost students for their actions and leadership related to the Provost incident. These students deserve a great deal of the credit for the ultimate success of the community initiative. There are few things easier to value than the achievement of our children. Mr. Fraser's praise of these students and those who chose to take part in the forum certainly established a common pride for participants.
• an understanding that, although it may be easier to discuss public relations and "community image", this forum was really about issues of the heart and people needed an opportunity to express "feelings" in the forum
It was important to have a significant cross section of community authority "legitimize" the outcome of this forum, but participants were asked not to attend as representatives of their organizations, but rather as themselves, residents of this community. A good deal of small group time was built into the forum and groups were provided with good facilitators and private, more intimate space for their discussions. Although the groups were given the task of answering the preceding questions that served as the framework for the forum, they had a great deal of time to discuss other issues. Personal feelings about the Aryan fest were discussed at length and a good deal of grieving and healing took place.
The CEO of Provost's Health Care Centre said, "I came to this forum because I direct a major institution and it's important for us to be here, but I really came here because of my kids. When the Aryan Nations event was happening, they came to me and asked what they should do. I didn't know what to tell them and I should have. I should have known what to say to my children about this".
A common sense of pride in being associated with this "speaking out" process developed as people spent time together.
• sharing feelings and values is difficult, but can be very positive and supportive. Discovering common values and beliefs is a powerful bonding experience
Small groups were brought together in plenary sessions at intervals in the forum. As they reported their deliberations and "answers" to the questions they were presented, common themes emerged. Participants shared a sense of celebration around values of caring, compassion and reaching out to others.
• some of the most productive time people will spend in sharing exercises is unstructured. Breaking bread is a simple way to bring people together without a formal agenda.
Throughout this day-and-a-half forum, meals were catered and participants had an opportunity to talk about themselves as well as issues. New friendships emerged around the values shared in the forum. The sense of safety in community that had been shattered by a few hateful, violent people began to return. A new sense of security, strength and pride was very apparent as participants interacted.
• it was important that this forum be more than an event. It needed to be the start of a process that would be ongoing.
The question, "what do we need to do to ensure our vision materializes?" was probably the most critical to the success of the forum. It gave people an opportunity to think about "what comes next", and some very specific action plans were shared in the closing plenary session and committed to by participants.
• to truly be effective, this proactive experience needed to be shared beyond the confines of Provost and forum participants.
Good public relations made this community action a positive one that carried benefits far beyond Provost. Maintaining contact with the same media people who reported the Aryan Nations event provided a vehicle to showcase the Provost community's response. Major newspapers, radio, and television carried the news that Provost "did something" about racism. Public speaking engagements across Western Canada are still being requested.
The forum described in the preceding pages was a one-and-a-half day exercise called "Stepping into the Global Community, a Symposium on Welcoming the World". This single event did not eradicate racism in Provost, but it certainly took a leading step towards becoming a more accepting and caring community that is open to all. The most significant achievement of this exercise was to demonstrate that the majority of Provost's residents already shared this vision. They were simply provided an opportunity to express themselves.
There have been racist incidents in other communities in Alberta (and there will certainly be others), but Provost might have been the first to speak out in a strong voice and re-capture their own sense of themselves. Other communities haven't given themselves an opportunity to grieve and heal and a significant number of people contacted Provost organizers to say, "they wish they had done something like this for their communities".
There were a number of very tangible outcomes from the symposium and I will list a few (and probably miss many). Not the least of these outcomes was to organize a second symposium early in 1992 aimed at a broader region of East Central Alberta. Some other significant developments included:
• Provost School Division developing specific policy of intolerance to racism or discrimination and including in the Division's Values and Beliefs statement;
• All students should have an equal opportunity to a quality education which addresses the growth and development of the whole person;
• All students should have an opportunity to learn in a safe and caring environment;
• Education must include a global focus which values cultural diversity;
• Schools developed their own programs to involve students in awareness of other cultures and interaction with students from other racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. These included Human Rights Day celebrations, regular attendance at provincial, multicultural youth conferences, the formation of in-school groups promoting multiculturalism and association with other schools in the province doing the same;
• The Provost Economic Development Committee in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce undertook a one-year project to study "Immigration as an Opportunity for Economic Diversification" for the Provost community;
• Specific plans were made to regularly celebrate the ethnic diversity of Provost through church groups and other community organizations;
• A "parade if flags" was proposed to be situated in a prominent place in the community as a permanent demonstration of diversity that built our community;
Most importantly, participants leaving this community symposium took with them some common "tools" that helped them better understand the roots of racism and things they could do about it within their own organizations and peer groups.
• Understand that prejudice is most often based on myth, misinformation and fear and we must continually inform, dispel myths and educate;
• Understand that racism is aimed at groups, but it is practised by individuals, we can confront racism on an individual basis;
• Understand that the "ripple effect" is global. Our actions as individuals or groups can effect the world.