Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Promoting Bigotry, Racism and Misogyny in Greater Sudbury, Part 1: The Ever-Changing Public Realm

Is there a place for the expression of bigotry, racism and misogyny in Greater Sudbury?

The answer, of course, is clearly, “Yes” – there is plenty of space, on the sidewalks, in our restaurants and bars, and especially on local social media sites.  I see and hear these expressions of bigotry, racism and misogyny every day.  While I like to think that maybe I could be that guy that challenges those who express these views with facts and information in an attempt to get people to change their minds, or at least to stop saying and doing things that promote racism and misogyny, I know that I lack both the courage and the energy.  There’s just so much of it happening in my community, it’s almost as if bigotry, racism and misogyny were institutionalized (can someone write with tongue and cheek? ‘Cuz I think I just did).

This isn’t to suggest that my community is somehow uniquely blighted by bigotry, racism and misogyny. I don’t believe it is. Sudbury isn’t unique in this respect by any means.  Perhaps we’ve been seeing a little more intolerance bubble to the surface as the result of the shameful identity politics Canada’s right-wing politicos have been playing lately, along with the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency.  And of course, the coming out party that our local media uncritically threw for the Soldiers of Odin recently has had a little something to do with allowing some to feel free to express themselves in ways that others would condemn as bigoted, racist and misogynistic.
Hey, it’s all a part of free speech, right? If I don’t like it, I can just close my eyes and ears or block people from my social media feeds and go on about my day. Because ultimately, people’s ability to utter racist and misogynistic comments online and in the real world trumps my desire not to see and hear them or, more correctly, not to have had them said and written in the first place – because ideally, I’d really like my kids to grow up in an environment where people really aren’t bigoted, racist or misogynistic, rather than just pretending not to be.  But I have my doubts that’s going to happen.

So there you go – not only is there a place for bigotry, racism and misogyny in Greater Sudbury, it’s one that I – a keen supporter of free speech and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms – should embrace.  Well, I guess this is going to prove to be a short blogpost after all.  I’ll just have to live with it.  Just like society learned to live with slavery.  Just like we learned to live with denying women the right to vote.  Just like we learned to live with pretending that one’s sexual orientation made some people sub-humans.  I guess there’s nothing wrong with any of that because, you know, free speech.

Ah, but it’s not my responsibility to police these sorts of things, right?  We’ve got hate speech laws in place that are policed by the police.  When someone steps out of line and incites violence against an identifiable group of people based on their gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, religious or cultural practices, well, the Law will do its job and protect us, ‘cuz hate speech isn’t free speech.  The Law is always courageous and efficient, after all – why should I worry?  It’s not my responsibility to clean up this town, to keep our public spaces free from abuse so that all users can feel safe when accessing municipal facilities, whether in the real world or online.

No, it’s not my responsibility. But it surely is the City of Greater Sudbury’s responsibility to provide services to the public which are free from discrimination and harassment.  The City has a number of policies about this – so although it’s quite easy to find expressions of bigotry, misogyny and outright racism throughout the community, you’re not going to find them at City Hall – or at any of a number of public facilities under the City’s administration, like arenas, libraries, community centres, fire halls, etc.  You can expect that when you interact with representatives of the City that you will not encounter any form of discrimination.  Our City, in my opinion, does an excellent job of ensuring that public services are delivered in a way free of discrimination, and that public facilities are accessible to all in a manner free of prejudice and harassment.

It’s 2017.  Do we expect anything less than that?

Of course, public services weren’t always delivered this way.  One of the best known of many examples of the delivery of discriminatory public services took place in Toronto in the 1920s, where Sunnyside pool, a public facility, limited the number of people of Jewish origin who could swim in the pool at the same time (see: “5 things you probably didn’t know about Toronto,” Alan Parker, Toronto Sun, July 19, 2009).  But sure, that was almost 100 years ago.  Times have changed. Sure, people hated Jews back then and maybe the haters had the upper hand.  But there’s been a slow evolution away from discrimination and towards inclusivity, and today there are still people who hate Jews, but they don’t get to dictate public policy.  Just look at where we are now.

Just look at where we are now.  Undeniably, things are a lot better than they were in the 1920s.  But it’s not like we’ve yet arrived at some sort of discrimination-free public realm nirvana.  We’ve still got a long way to go to overcome a lot of forms of discrimination in the public realm – including in our municipal facilities.  Recently, the City of Victoria, B.C., grappled with deciding whether or not to move forward with creating a transinclusion policy for the City, to protect the rights of transgendered and gender non-conforming individuals (see: “Media: Victoria votes to create first trans inclusion policy,” June 6, 2016).

Hmmm…is it right for me to compare the rights of Jewish people to the rights of transgendered people?  Haven’t those transgendered folk been in the news a lot lately, running around, stirring up hate, promoting a gay agenda?  And if not in the news, haven’t you seen a lot of posts on your friends’ Facebook wall about bathrooms and trans people?  I mean, you’re not a bigot, and you probably have some gay friends – but those memes about trans people in our bathrooms are kind of scary, right?  It’s not really discriminatory to believe that we should all use the bathroom based on the equipment that we were born with, right?  That’s not like discriminating against Jewish people, by telling them they can’t go for a swim, right? (or discriminating against Muslim women, telling them they can’t go for a swim, right? See: “Muslim Woman Denied Access to Public Pool Due to Attire,” 40AthleticBusinesses, October 2014).

The answer to the question of whether it’s right to compare the battles fought by Jewish people throughout the last century to achieve equal rights and the battles being fought by transgendered people today – the answer to that question can be answered by another question: Are Jewish people and transgendered people people?  If you believe that they are people, the question is answered in the affirmative.

And that’s good news, because Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects groups of people from experiencing discrimination on a number of grounds, including their religious beliefs, their skin colour, their gender, their sexual orientation, etc. If you’re people, you’re protected. That’s why they call them “human rights”.  The law, of course, is there to protect us all from discrimination.

A city, like Greater Sudbury, is a municipal corporation.  If it didn’t uphold our laws when delivering services, it could quickly find itself in all sorts of trouble, to varying degrees.  In Ontario, the City of Cornwall is currently being challenged for a policy in that municipality which at least one person believes to be discriminatory – and yes, it has to do with swimming pools.   Now some might think that the woman who is taking the City of Cornwall to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal over a policy which the Mayor of Cornwall has called “discriminatory and gender-based” that prevents her from swimming topless in municipal pools might be akin to what some call a First World problem (see: “Cornwall, Ont., reviewing topless policy complaint,” CBC News, July 11, 2017).  But I’m not one of them.  Discrimination is discrimination – and a municipality has a legal obligation not to discriminate when it comes to public service delivery.

And clearly, combatting discrimination continues to be a moving target.  Again, we’ve not yet arrived in a discrimination-free nirvana – not when it comes to our public spaces and facilities.

Which brings us back to the question that I kicked this blogpost off with: Is there a place for the expression of bigotry, racism and misogyny in Greater Sudbury?  In Part 2 of this series, despite having answered “yes” at the outset of this blogpost, I’ll offer my opinion on why a City like ours and our elected and public officials need to get their collective acts together to combat bigotry, racism and misogyny in our public realm.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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