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politics

Uzma Shakir, on Building a More Equitable Toronto

On the International Day to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, we talk to the City's access and equity champion about social justice, race, and difficult conversations.

Uzma Shakir 4 UA

City of Toronto equity director Uzma Shakir speaks at a meeting of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. Photo by AJ McDowell.

When City officials approved an action plan to eliminate racism and discrimination in 2003, they noted that while Toronto was in economic bloom, certain groups were being left behind. “These disparities impact disproportionately on Aboriginal people, racial minorities, recent immigrants, people with disabilities, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” the City report stated. [PDF]

Over ten years later, studies tell us the inequities persist, and may even be getting worse. But the City has ramped up its response, which includes the creation of an Equity, Diversity, and Human Rights division.

Uzma Shakir has been the director of that division for three years. Shakir moved to Canada from Pakistan in 1988, and has been a tireless equity advocate as a front-line community worker, academic researcher, and professor in the Department of Geography and Program in Planning at the University of Toronto.

To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Shakir spoke at a meeting of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations last night. We caught up with her afterwards to chat about building a more equitable city.

Torontoist: When did you first recognize that advocating for equity and social justice mattered to you?

Uzma Shakir: I think I’ve always felt that. When I came to Canada, you know, suddenly my situation changed. A young person growing up in Pakistan, being involved in women’s issues, etc., etc., leading a fairly safe and privileged life. I came here and suddenly became an immigrant, a wife, and a mother. And found that in spite of all my education, I was just as disenfranchised, or at least marginalized, as many others. The one advantage that I had was that I had control over the English language, which gave me some access to society that other women from, say, South Asia did not have.

I ended up volunteering in women’s organizations, just doing whatever I could to connect immigrant women to services. And then I got to realize the issues of violence against women, and how hard it was for communities to be able to access any kinds of supports. If you’re an immigrant, you don’t have your family here, you don’t speak the language, the services are not always amenable to what your needs are.

During that time, I realized that social justice was not something I choose to do—it’s something I can’t help but do. I had no family here, and I felt that the only way I could actually find support was to work with other people.

You’ve worked for a number of community organizations. Why move into municipal government?

I remember talking to my children, and my son said something that resonated with me. He said, “You’ve done everything—you’ve worked in the community, you’ve taught, you’ve written, you’ve done research, but you’ve never actually tried to work from within the system. You’ve always been on the outside.” Sometimes wisdom comes from the mouths of babes.

At this stage of my life, I understand the community issues, and I have dealt with political structures, but always from the outside. Of all the levels of government, the City is the one that always interested me. The municipal government is the closest to the people. We actually deliver frontline services. It’s a job that’s close to my heart.

You spoke tonight about a collective reluctance to frame challenges in the city as racial. Yet we live in perhaps the most racially diverse city in the world. Why do you think we struggle in talking about race?

I think it’s Canadian history, I think it’s the public discourse, the Canadian psyche. Maybe it’s because we never had a civil rights movement. We talk always in terms of multiculturalism, and we talk about diversity— and that’s part of the Canadian national narrative.

There is such a diversity of aboriginal communities here, and there’s English and French, and the other immigrants who have come. The multiculturalism discourse in Canada is so overpowering that we don’t see things in terms of race.

That is not to say that we don’t recognize that we are racially diverse, but we don’t think that is the issue. Racial difference is just difference; it’s not racial difference as it leads to your opportunities and your options in life. We need to talk about race as a defining factor, because even the Aboriginal experience is extremely racialized.

You’ve said that you do believe there’s a lot of great work being done at the City of Toronto today as far as equity, human rights, inclusion. Can you talk about some things that excite you?

Well, the most important thing is—ever since I joined the City—the amount of support I get from senior management. People are very open to suggestions if I make a suggestion, and they are willing to do things differently. If they have an issue, they seek advice from our division. It’s very heartening.

The city manager himself, by creating this division, has shown his commitment. And he was very adamant, as we were developing our contributions for the City’s 2014-2018 strategic plan, that he wanted Equity, Diversity, and Human Rights to be a key priority. To me, that says something. If it’s part of your strategic action, every division has to take it into consideration.

There are so many positive things going on: our Newcomer Initiatives, the Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy, our Youth Equity Framework. Over and beyond that, it’s the other folks who are willing and open to come have a conversation. People will call me up and say, “I’m developing a standard operating procedure for, say, Municipal Licensing and Standards. Can you review it from the lens of accessibility? Am I using the right language? Is the implication going to be correct in terms of vulnerable populations?” At least they’re thinking about it, and that’s a positive sign.

You said tonight that inequity and injustice have ways of reinventing themselves. Can you expand on that?

As society changes, there are new ways in which people become vulnerable. The economic situation right now, the growing income inequality that’s a problem all over the world, but also in Canada. The continuous correlation between immigration status, race, poverty, aboriginal status really troubles me.

Intuitively, you would think, as an immigrant, I don’t expect to do well immediately. I will struggle, but my children will do better or, over a period of time, I will do better. But that’s not happening. But the research shows that not only are income disparity and poverty becoming entrenched, they’re actually having an impact on the next generation.

And you begin to ask yourself: Why is this still happening, particularly when the people we are recruiting are better educated than ever before? And that’s what I mean. We need to be in tune with how new structural realities create the same old marginality, but in a different way.

Talking about race and equity can be really uncomfortable for many of us. What tools and strategies have you learned for beginning those difficult conversations?

I think disaggregated data is a good entry point. As a public policy person, there’s no point in my talking about race in some esoteric way. If you’re going to make good public policy, we need to have good data. And if the data shows a certain reality, then we need to address it. Call it whatever you want.

An issue arises when you talk about, say, employment equity and people say, “Oh, you’re going to take jobs away from some people and give them to others.” That to me is not employment equity—that’s Robin Hood. Good public policy is not about taking from one and giving to another; it is actually asking how we can create the conditions where those who never had access to opportunities will have access to them.

I’m assuming at the end of the day that everyone wants to create a society that is equitable. I’m not naïve enough to think we’re going to do it tomorrow. But at least let’s start thinking that way.

We’re about to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Who has inspired you to do your work?

This is the year of Nelson Mandela. He is larger than life. Talk about racial discrimination. He was not alone, but he became the symbol. I think he’s inspirational. But you know, I’m not so inspired by big names. I’m actually inspired by people you never hear about.

I remember doing a workshop years ago with about 20 young women from the South Asian community, all of them survivors of domestic violence. They had been dealing with living in a country that is completely alien, not being able to get jobs, inadequate housing, their kids not getting support in the school system. And yet there they were, laughing and talking and building a community.

To me, that’s inspirational. I could give these women information about programs, but I could never teach them the courage they already had. Often as an immigrant, you come here without family, so you have to create one. That’s the reason why I continue to do this work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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