A panel of citizens of different backgrounds-Muslim, Jewish, Mi’kmaq and Indian-discussed the different and changing faces of racism in New Brunswick.
Held on June 23, 2021, the Anti-racism Panel’s subtitle was “Collective action: How to address racism in our community.” The Multicultural Council of New Brunswick’s Anti-racism Project Coordinator, local activist Husoni Raymond, hosted the event and specified that the event was meant to explore: “what our community can do better.”
Concerns were raised about the diversity and make-up of the panel by Bernadette Baker, a member of the online viewing public. During the question period, Baker stated: “descendants of the enslaved of pre-Canada must be invited and included in future panels.” Raymond reiterated that the “erasures of Black histories (…) and Black bodies” plagues New Brunswick.
Featured panel speakers were Donna Augustine, Israel Unger, Manisha Varma and Mohamed Khirallah. As well as participating, Mi’kmaq Elder Augustine (Thunderbird Turtle Woman) from Elsipogtog performed the offerings and prayers at the start of the event.
In Augustine’s life, racism “has been happening all my life.” She added, “when I went to high school in town because we only went to grade 8 in my community (…) we were constantly being harassed,” the others “would attack us for no reason.”
Augustine added that embracing her identity was a slow progression: “It was only through empowerment (…) when I started going back to my ceremonies when I was 22” years old that she “made a decision to help empower my people.”
“Canada was not listening to us,” Augustine declared, “our political (…) spiritual leaders (…) and young people (…) are getting stronger.” She considers that change is happening, especially for Indigenous peoples: “we are taking back who we are (…) we’re going to speak the truth.”
Regarding the process of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada and the future of racism in the country, Augustine said: “we’re still at Truth, there’s a lot of work to do.”
Born in Poland, Holocaust survivor Dr. Israel Unger became a chemistry professor at the University of New Brunswick in 1965.
The word racism for Unger “implies that there are different races (…) [but] there is only one race, the human race. We shouldn’t be making distinctions.” When Unger speaks of racism, he “includes in it persecution and hate of any variety.” Unger also distinguished between “state sanctioned” and “personal” hate, which is “all over the map” in terms of its concrete expressions.
Unger shared: “My first experience of hatred was in the fall of 1945 (…) I was the only Jewish boy in my class and I was singled out (…) because I was asked to leave” during the Catholic prayers. He authored a book on his experience: The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger.
Community leader Mohamed Khirallah arrived in Canada in 2016. He founded a business, the Roticana Coffee Company, in Fredericton. He was named “Champion of Cultural Diversity” for Immigrant Business in 2018 by the Multicultural Council of New Brunswick and founded the New Brunswick Business Immigrants’ Association.
Khirallah is from the Middle East, African and Muslim. He said, “as early as I can remember,” he has been aware of difference but “he started experiencing it as soon as he started travelling.” Khirallah shared experiences of delays and extensive questioning at airports.
Originally from West India and having immigrated to Canada in 2006, Manisha Varma is the President of the Indo-Canadians in Fredericton, among her numerous grassroots collaborations.
Varma hears about experiences of discrimination daily in her community work. She provided an example of a Sikh person who was told to work in the back room because he wore a turban. In Varma’s experience: “minority people can feel that they are ignored from time to time, and they even have less significance around the workplace.”
For Varma, a “lack of cultural awareness” is the main reason for most of these incidents of discrimination. She added: “it’s always been around (…) we didn’t hear about it before or we didn’t experience it before, but now it’s happening.”
Raymond agreed with Varma about the future: “it’s important for us to educate (…) to get to a ‘post-racial’ society.”
This event was part of the 2021 Cultural Expressions Festival held in Fredericton and sponsored by various organizations including the Multicultural Association of Fredericton and the Multicultural Council of New Brunswick.
To watch the video of the panel (which has been viewed over 200 times) click here.
Sophie M. Lavoie is a writer and editor with the NB Media Co-op.