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Small Alberta town in spotlight over planned Black Lives Matter event

Innisfail mayor Jim Romane, seen in Innisfail, Alta., on Tuesday, June 9, 2020, says he's been caught off guard by all the attention his small town has received over an anti-racism march planned for this weekend.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
June 09, 2020 - 9:00 PM

INNISFAIL, Alta. - Bigoted online vitriol almost derailed a Black Lives Matter event planned in a central Alberta town, but the mayor of Innisfail said he has not heard from residents experiencing racism there.

Organizer Brittany Bovey initially postponed the rally planned for Saturday in Innisfail following an onslaught of Facebook comments mocking the Black Lives Matter movement and denying racism is a problem.

The gathering is back on thanks to a wave of support, although it is now to be a "community conversation" rather than a march or protest.

A Black man in Minneapolis died last month after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. Anger over George Floyd's death has spurred large protests around the world calling for an end to systemic racism and police brutality.

Innisfail Mayor Jim Romane said he's been watching news coverage of massive marches around the world, but never would have figured his town of 8,000 south of Red Deer would be swept up in the issue.

"You think it's something out in the other part of the world somewhere and it doesn't affect little old Innisfail," he said Tuesday.

Romane said the town stands against racism and that non-white residents have never raised it as an issue with him.

"I've yet to hear of problems," he said.

"This young lady seems to think it is an issue and wants to get Innisfail on the map and declare ourselves against racism. I don't have any problem with that at all."

Romane added that he didn't mean to downplay anti-Black racism when he said in an interview with the Calgary Herald on Monday that "all lives matter."

"I meant to say that everybody's equal, so why all of a sudden do Black lives seem to be predominant over anybody else? I just put everybody on the same level playing field."

The co-founders of Ubuntu - Mobilizing Central Alberta, an anti-racism group, said Romane is off base in suggesting racism isn't an issue in Innisfail.

"As soon as someone says there is no racism, that's a problematic statement in and of itself," said Sadia Khan of Red Deer. "It's their privilege that's letting them say 'racism does not exist in my community.'"

Dieulita Datus of Lacombe said she experiences racist micro-aggressions every day in central Alberta as a Black woman — whether it's people touching her hair without permission or asking where she's from.

"To speak on a subject like that and to categorically deny that racism exists as the mayor of a local town or city, I would really like to know where he got that information from," she said.

Datus and Khan are not spearheading the event, but are supporting Bovey in planning it. They say they appreciate that Bovey, who is white, was eager to listen to and include their input as racialized women.

Bovey did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Khan said it's important for small towns like Innisfail to express solidarity with the wider anti-racist movement, but there's no one-size-fits-all approach.

"Instead of protest marches ... we can have these conversations in a small gathering and really dismantle the systems that are in place that oppress people of colour."

Datus and Khan said to limit the spread of COVID-19, attendees will be encouraged to wear masks, gather in family groups and make use of hand-sanitizing stations.

Romane expressed misgivings about a large group gathering and hopes attendees will follow public health guidelines.

"That will be devastating if there's a breakout here," he said. "I will never have anything good to say about protesting if that's what happens."

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who hadn't heard about the issue in Innisfail on Tuesday, commended those speaking out against anti-Black racism and said anyone denying it exists in the province is "just wrong."

"They need to listen to the experiences of Black Albertans and other people from racial minority backgrounds," he said. "They need to honour their voices, their lived experience and to seek ways to reach out and do better."

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 9, 2020

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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