Community leaders gather to discuss racism

NANAIMO – Educating community against intolerance, moving on from incident high on agenda.

Vancouver Island University president Ralph Nilson

Vancouver Island University president Ralph Nilson

Civic leaders gathered Wednesday morning at Vancouver Island University to discuss how the city can move forward after undercurrents of racism surfaced in a local newspaper last week.

On March 27, the Nanaimo Daily News published a letter that referred to First Nations as primitive and non-contributors to the modern world.

The letter, for which the paper has since apologized for printing, prompted an immediate outcry from the public, and more than 250 people protested outside the Daily News’s office the following day, demanding an apology.

The event made international news.

The meeting at VIU, attended by dozens of business leaders, politicians, and First Nations representatives, aimed to address racism and stem the damage outside perception may cause the city.

Snuneymuxw Chief Douglas White III said the incident needs to serve as a starting point to build a more tolerant community.

“We need to grasp on to this issue as an opportunity for us to do the hard work of taking steps to build reconciliation,” said White after the two-hour meeting closed. “We need to move away from this negativity as quickly as we can and begin to address the underlying issues in society that the racism illuminates, grab hold of them and work together to ensure that we do the important work.”

A committee will be struck to determine first steps on how to approach addressing racism over the next year, and will likely include a summit in the summer to consider the roles all stakeholders, including media, plays in addressing tolerance.

VIU president Ralph Nilson said it will take the entire community to eliminate racism.

“As a university in this community we’ve got a responsibility to provide a space for difficult dialogues that can take place in a respectful, supportive way,” said Nilson. “I characterize the tone in this meeting today as a community that recognizes that we’ve got some challenges … but there is a clear recognition that there is a commitment on the part of this community to work together.”

Nilson called Wednesday’s meeting “rich, deep and very, very thoughtful.”

Mark MacDonald, the Daily News’s managing editor, addressed the gathering, apologizing again for printing the letter and offering support to move forward.

Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan said the theme he heard the most during the meeting was the need for change and improvement in how people in Nanaimo treat and respect each other.

“From that standpoint alone, it was very positive,” said Ruttan. “We want to provide people with the knowledge that Nanaimo is a safe place to be, it’s a place worthy of investment. I’m worried negative thoughts might have gone across Canada and it’s just so wrong. This is the place to be and to enjoy the lifestyle. We have everything here but we do not have racism and I want people to understand that if there are undertones out there, we will do our best to educate the people.”

Ruttan added that he has addressed concerns from potential investors, including potential conference centre hotel investors, that the “atmosphere in Nanaimo is somewhat toxic.”

“The lone voice of one person, which really perpetrated this whole thing, is not enough to hold a whole community at ransom,” said Ruttan.

White said he holds out hope that one incident will not overshadow all of the positive attributes Nanaimo has to offer.

“This incident from last week does not in any way reflect the larger segment of our society. The larger segment of society is reflected today in the coming together of a diverse set of people to recognize an important discussion in our society that must unfold,” he said.