Open Letter to City Council from Poets Laureate
From the Poets Laureate Nisha Patel and Timiro Mohamed:
We acknowledge that amiskwaciwâskahikan (The City of Edmonton) is built in the gathering place of the Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/ Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, Inuit, and others who are the traditional stewards and caretakers of this land. In today’s city, people have gathered at the North Saskatchewan river from across the world, and face vivid and varying intersections of challenges in creating sustainable and flourishing lives here. For marginalized people these challenges are profound: racism and oppression at the hands of a settler-colonial state steeped in systems of inequality and maintained by white supremacy. As robust research, itself obfuscated, becomes available, we know a new and radical future is possible.
We call on the City Council to acknowledge the decades of harm and violence perpetuated by the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) against Black, Indigenous, and persons of colour (BIPOC) in the form of illegal carding, racial profiling, excessive use of force, overpolicing, and misuse of power. Edmonton has one of the deadliest police forces in the country. As police budgets grow, “...even when adjusted for population growth over the 17-year window, the number of people dying in encounters with police has increased steadily” (CBC News). We call on the City to immediately defund these systems, and commit to radical, community-facing and collaborative frameworks for safety. We do not believe reform is enough. Defunding will save Black and Indigenous lives. The abolition of police is the goal. We support the efforts of Black Lives Matters Edmonton, and reiterate the words of Sandy Hudson:
“...there are better services that we can create or that are currently in existence that we can use to provide safety and security for our community in a better way, and certainly in a way that doesn't result in the ridiculous amount of police killings of Black and Indigenous people.” - CBC News
Right now, an intense and deep body of research is being presented to Council. Personal, troubling, traumatic stories on the lived realities of BIPOC communities. There is so much pain being shared in an effort to be humanized and seen as worthy of protection. We are being asked to put ourselves at further risk of racism and discrimination, to face the very people seeking to oppress us, in order to be given a chance to be heard. To deny the truth of these stories is to deny our agency and lived history. Many of us have already faced backlash for speaking out. But we do it anyway, in our poetry and our art and our continued existence, because we have to. It is hard to learn about racism. It is much harder to live it.
As poets, we are called to tell our stories in pursuit of healing for ourselves and for our communities. We believe strongly in the transformative power of the word, and hold the use of words in public advocacy in the highest regards, understanding that what we do has an impact on those around us, people who we try to uplift and protect. We do this work in honor of those who came before us, “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change” (Lorde, 1984). The Poets Laureate signed agreements detailing the services we would provide to the City. Part of this agreement includes acting as literary ambassadors, and in the words of Nina Simone “an artist's duty...is to reflect the times”. Black artists are the founders and legacy makers of spoken word poetry, we would not be recognized for our work without Black art. Through the continued labor of Black artists, our work form has allowed us to connect with the people of this place, to celebrate and hold space for complexity, and empower others. To stay silent in light of a global movement aimed at dismantling an institution wrought with anti-Black racism is a disservice to our community and to the immense contribution Black art has had on the City of Edmonton. To stand in the face of the injustices experienced by BIPOC communities means challenging the systems that have held artists down as well.
Public testimonials are the heart-blood of all public engagement the City has undertaken in every other department of their operations. What we are hearing is that not only have practices held back and hurt BIPOC communities - but that a new future is possible, backed by evidence. The cornerstone of the municipal government apparatus is that they have the greatest capacity for change. Cities can respond where provincial and federal governments lack the dexterity or the willpower. The ethos of local governance is that they are closest to the people. We are speaking now. Where is the race-based data we need to make informed decisions? Why won’t the City support it? Why aren’t more care workers being hired for non-criminal calls? Where is free transit, whose policing impacts the poor and BIPOC citizens the most? What is the City doing to undo the documented bias favouring white homeowners when calls for police are made? Defunding the police is not just a story of reallocating resources: it is the story of implementing radical change that will dismantle systems of discrimination and uplift entire communities. It is doing the work and standing up for the lives of the most marginalized.
It is our right and just choice as BIPOC to demand a future where the validity of our lives is recognized. Not only by those who acknowledge the realities of systemic racism but by those who are willing to work alongside us to ensure our agency and our safety.
We support and reiterate the demands of our community members:
“Reinvest EPS’ $383 million budget into new grassroots infrastructure that prioritizes community safety for Black, Indigenous and otherwise marginalized communities using these principles.
Never vote to increase the EPS budget.
To immediately repeal the $75 million dollar budget increase promised to EPS in 2019.
To reinvest that $75 million into affordable housing, mental health programming, making public transit free and community-led organizations.”
A full action-plan is detailed on Black Lives Matter, Edmonton.
We also believe that anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism is and must be recognized as a public health crisis. In every category of the proponents of health, both Black and Indigenous people in Canada face life-threatening discrimination resulting in high mortality rates at all ages. This is supported by evidence from the Canadian Public Health Association. Resources must be set forth to combat the real and visceral ways the public health system is failing BIPOC people. We call on Council to petition for anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism to be declared a public health crisis.
In addition, we call on all Councillors to listen and respond to these concerns, as well as the questions posted below. Especially for those who believe themselves to be advocates of the people: none of your constituencies are enclaves, your borders contain multitudes of experience, and sitting silently is itself a choice to continue to sentence our communities to violence, harassment and death. Of the 416 people documented to be killed by police between 2000 - 2017 in Canada, there were only two convictions. It is not enough to admit there is a problem - action must be taken.
To all Councillors:
Have you read the research on defunding the police?
What have you done in your wards to ensure racism does not flourish?
What is your role and relationship with EPS and board?
What do you do to engage in dissenting opinion? We’ve seen Councillors who block those who question them on public forums, who refuse to acknowledge the responsibilities of their role as public officials.
What are you doing to engage with information that might hold you culpable for the hurt we are seeing in the community?
What are YOU doing to create a city where everyone has the right to live free?
We are citizens tasked with upholding the power of the story and the truth in face of systems of power. Those in charge of power, those who make the rules, what is your role? What will you choose to do?
Nisha Patel, Poet Laureate Timiro Mohamed, Youth Poet Laureate
Complete list of contributors for the Invest in Community, Divest from Policing Letter: