Nearly one-year on from a seismic shift on equality and social justice felt in the year 2020, the demands for change were still heard loudly throughout 2021. From a very consequential decision made by the local school board, to a major break in the demand for Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous people, to all the various humanitarian and equity issues in between, this was a very busy year on the social justice file. Let’s recap.
Part I: Small Moves
It was hard to imagine that 2021 was going to see the same massive cultural shift as 2020, and much of the first part of the year was swallowed by a cycle of lockdown and re-opening as the number of new COVID-19 cases ebbed and flowed. Concerns about expanding the bounds of equality and social justice seemed to take a back seat in the wake of the ongoing public health crisis.
In lieu of big protests, or big action, all eyes were on what the people in power might do next. In February, there was an announcement for Federal funding to support the Guelph Black Heritage Society with new virtual programming, which would include April’s first-ever Change Starts Now Anti-Racism Summit.
Down the road at Guelph Police Services, a new program was announced for the creation of Community Liaison Officers, whose role would be “to build a mutual trust, understanding and respect between the Guelph Police Service and their assigned community.” There was immediate skepticism though as members of Guelph’s Queer community posted an open letter on social media that said police didn’t consult them before launching their outreach program, and that the police were trying to override services already provided by the community though organizations they trusted more than police.
Guelph Police were confronted with another matter of mistrust at the end of April when the Upper Grand District School Board formally ended the School Resource Officer program. The Police Presence in Schools Task Force recommended the end of the SRO program noting that while public reaction to the idea was mixed, the program itself had gone on for almost 20 years without review.
“Society has changed, our students have changed, the people in our building, the expectations, how we dress, how we talk, has all changed, and so just like curriculum changes, so do presentations, so do people’s presence within our buildings need to change as well,” explained Cheryl Van Ooteghem, Superintendent of Education at the UGDSB, on an episode of the Guelph Politicast this summer.
Marva Wisdom, who co-chaired the Police Presence in Schools Task Force, noted that the debate wasn’t as clear as having police in school and not having police in school, but there was a noticeable lack of standards and best practices across all police services and school boards in terms of how the duties and responsibilities of police officers in schools was handled. There was also the most essential point of limiting the presence of police in schools.
“I think as a school board, and looking very broadly at the information received through an equity lens, this provides an opportunity to say that we need all kids to feel safe, we need all kids to know that their voice is being heard,” Wisdom said. “What does fairness and social justice look like? What does safety look like? Those are the two areas that we have to work on to balance, share information and raise awareness, not only for the community, but even for policing as well.”
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, the Wellington OPP said that they would design a new community policing program in lieu of the now cancelled Student Resource Officer program. The Guelph Police Service said that they would respect the board’s decision and work with them on coming up with protocols when police do have to be at schools.
“We are committed to ensuring the safety of our schools and to having positive, proactive engagements with youth and our community,” Guelph Police send in a media statement after the vote. “We will be meeting with the UGDSB to determine how we can continue to deliver safety training along with other presentations in accordance with the board’s requests and requirements.”
Part II: “They Found Us”
News out of Kamloops, B.C. at the end of May put Truth and Reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations people back on the front burner. The discovery of 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former residential school property spurred nation-wide anger and protest, and a renewed look at this dark chapter in Canadian history, and by the end of summer over 1,500 unmarked graves had been found on former residential school lands across Canada.
On June 1, people gathered in front of the Basilica of Our Lady here in Guelph to express their feelings about the discovery. A great sea of people shut down the intersection at Norfolk and Macdonell as local Indigenous leaders and residents led a vigil from the mezzanine overlooking the street. On the upper lawn children’s shoes were placed to symbolize all the lost lives at residential schools.
“I wonder can you see us? Can you really see us? Can you really hear us? And do you believe us?” asked Maani Anna Cheesequay, an Indigenous elder who’s lived in Guelph for four decades. “If you do, what are you going to do about it? I would like to see somebody take the time to ensure that we get justice for these young children in these mass graves. It’s not my system, and there’s so much other work that we have to do to take care of ourselves.”
Our Indigenous community would be seen again on Canada Day as even more people gathered in front of the Basilica. In advance of July 1, the Rotary Club of Guelph joined the City of Guelph in promoting the idea of using this year’s commemoration as a time to reflect and heal. Rotary had already cancelled the annual festivities in Riverside Park out of pandemic concerns, but the City asked people to see it as an opportunity. “We encourage you to celebrate Canada Day in your own way as we all work together, to be the change that we want to see in our community,” a statement from the City of Guelph said.
On the day, thousands returned to the front of the Basilica to express their anger about the unmarked graves, the mistreatment of Indigenous people, the lack of equality, concern of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the systemic loss of family and culture caused by the residential school system, the “Sixties Scoop” and other disastrous, damaging government policies forced on Canada’s First Nations people.
“I knew I was connected in some way to this land, I knew that I had this fire inside of me, but I didn’t know anything about it. I had been taught to hide it,” explained Layla Black, a Mohawk from the Six Nations, who described the personal costs for even those who never stepped foot in residential schools. “I remember as I started to seek my culture and go back to my community that I was afraid. I was afraid they wouldn’t accept me. I was afraid I wasn’t native enough, but I went anyway.”
The summer protests set the stage for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in September. Council passed a motion recognizing the day and the need to work towards the goals of Truth and Reconciliation, and events were held at Guelph Museums, the University of Guelph, and Royal City Park.
“We cannot make progress on meaningful reconciliation until the truth has been uncovered and accepted by all,” said Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner in a statement. “The truth is that genocide is part of Ontario and Canada’s history. And we must face that reality as we work to dismantle colonialism. Confronting the truth means educating all Ontarians about the atrocities of colonialism and the history of residential schools.”
In time for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, there was a sign of some hope, a statement of apology from the Catholic Bishops of Canada. The Catholic Church, which ran seven out of 10 of the residential schools in Canada, was the one institution that had not offered apologies and regrets for the those schools and the things that happened within them. Finally, that seemed to change.
“Many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in this system, which led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, failing to respect the rich history, traditions and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples,” the statement said. “They acknowledged the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual. They also sorrowfully acknowledged the historical and ongoing trauma and the legacy of suffering and challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples that continue to this day.”
Part III: The Summer of Our Discontent
In the midst of the renewed focus on the systemic racism faced by Indigenous people, there was a more modern tragedy that happened west from here. On a Sunday evening, four members of the Afzaal family were killed by a man driving a truck while they were out of for a walk in London, Ontario. They were killed because they were Muslim.
The killing, and the reasons for it, prompted a Canada-wide reaction and a massive show of support for Muslim communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Here in Guelph, thousands gathered at the Guelph Muslim Society on Water Street and then marched through the old University neighbourhood to downtown as people called for compassion and equity in the name of four people killed in a terrible hate crime, and the one little boy that survived.
“I’ve already had calls coming in saying, ‘We’re afraid to walk on the street’, ‘We’re afraid to go for a walk’, people are making those phone calls and asking, ‘Should we change our attire so we blend in and make ourselves like everybody else?’” said Imam Mubeen Bhatt. “Recognize every single person has a place here, every race has a place here. All land is God’s land, and and nobody lives on this land forever.”
Even before the tragic events in London, Guelph’s Muslims organized a march in support of another tragedy half-a-world away. In May, there were 11 days of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories in Israel, the overwhelming superiority of the Israeli Defence Forces provoked sympathy for the Palestinian people, as did images of the forced evictions from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and an air strike on the building housing foreign media in Gaza.
Hundreds of people came out on May 15 in front of City Hall to express anger and frustration, but also sympathy, for the Palestinian civilians caught between Israel and members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Some drew comparisons between the plight of the Palestinians, and the long history of struggle for North America’s Indigenous people.
“Whenever I read about Palestine, I see the same things over here, whenever I see the horrors committed in Palestine, I’m reminded of what my people have been through. The same powers that fund Palestinian genocide funded my people’s genocide,” said Xico Lopez, a local Indigenous activist. “You know, we think we’ve gotten to the point in Canada where in escalations – usually it’s a standoff – no one wants to shoot first, but usually when someone dies, it’s an Indian.”
A couple of weeks after that, Guelph’s LGBTQ+ community had to respond to an incident of their own. Someone tore down the Pride flag at Sacred Heart Catholic School during the first weekend of June in what both the police and the school board called an act of vandalism. The flag was taken, but not the pride as the neighbourhood rallied by bringing to the school little Pride flags and other items for tribute.
“Our school staff felt strongly that we needed to communicate our core beliefs after this act of vandalism,” said Sacred Heart Principal Nicole De Francesco in a statement. “Today, a number of staff and myself went to the school, and we put the Pride flag, our core beliefs, and an orange heart with ‘Every Child Matters’ in the windows of our classrooms. We wanted to express that our school’s mission, after our namesake, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is to love.”
The end of summer brought the annual commemoration of International Overdose Awareness Day. A few hundred people packed St. George’s Square in honour of the 12,500 people in Ontario that went to the ER because of an opioid overdose in 2020, and the 2,400 people who died from opioid-related causes in that same year.
“I hear folks say that they just need to get it together. They just need to pull up their bootstraps,” said Karen Lomax, the Overdose Prevention Co-ordinator of HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health (ARCH). “They just need to get sober and life will be so much more better. But if you’re sober, your problems don’t go away. You get can’t get sober and your homelessness disappears. Last time I checked, that’s not how it works.”
Part IV: An Election and Great Expectations
In late summer, the City of Guelph hired Guelph Muslim Society community services director Sara Sayyed as the new senior advisor of Equity, Anti-Racism and Indigenous Initiatives at City Hall. Sayyed’s role is to “influence and inform policy development, project planning, service delivery, and program evaluation activities at the City,” but in regards to social justice issues, some barriers were bigger than others.
One of the biggest debates of the fall was around expanding access to the 2022 Municipal Election by introducing electronic ballot marking, a way that people with disabilities can use their personal electronic assistance devices to fill out an electronic ballot that they can then print off and submit like a regular paper ballot.
“A Vote from Home pilot project is fine as a supplementary thing but it isn’t actually sensible because it doesn’t offer people the option to independently vote,” explained Lorelei Root, a member of the City’s Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC). “It’s forcing dependency on people and having someone show up to your house and help you mark a ballot, so you still don’t get to vote privately and independently on your own.”
A motion from council in the summer directed the clerks office to look at implementing an EBM option for next year’s election, but at November’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the clerks reported that there was just not enough time to implement another voting option for the 2022 election. There was also some concern that Guelph would be the first government to enact EBM anywhere any Canada, and with so much research to do before having everything ready and in place for the election in May, it was just too much work to finish in a short period of time.
Despite two very active slate of delegations in November, council would come to see things the clerks way. There will be no EBM for the 2022 election, although council passed a supplementary motion to direct the clerks office to investigate voting service enhancements for 2026 in consultation with the Accessibility Advisory Committee and report back by the second quarter of 2024.
In the meantime, there was an election in the fall of 2021. In August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and begin the 44th general election in Canada. Ongoing issues with the COVID-19 pandemic and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan were front of mind for the national news, and in Guelph, candidates from the left hammered incumbent MP Lloyd Longfield for slow government action on both climate change and Truth and Reconciliation. Ultimately, both Longfield and Liberals were returned to power in the September vote.
As the year started to come to a close, Guelph activists were back out in the streets again, this time to support land defenders blockading a road to a Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline construction site in British Columbia. In an RCMP raid, 14 people were arrested including two journalists, an action all the more notable because it was the same week that B.C. was fighting a state of emergency with record flooding along with the coast.
In Guelph, protestors marched from the Farmers’ Market to the corner of Wellington and Gordon where they held a blockade of their own before moving on. The organizers wanted to show solidarity with Indigenous allies on the other side of the country, and to make the point that the cause of Truth and Reconciliation was still a long way from being complete.
“I’m super proud of our community and the people who have come out from outside of Guelph as well, we definitely love all the support,” said Maura Winkup, a member of the Cayuga from Six Nations who was one of the co-organizers of the march. “I urge people to keep educating themselves and to just show up even if you only have 10 minutes.”
To be continued in 2022…