The medium is the message when it comes to social change

Sometimes it can be too political — threatening even — to call out systemic racism, sexism, and discrimination, even at the heart of our government, where freedom of expression is supposedly sacrosanct.

Toronto Star | March 14, 2017

I’m often bemused by the scrutiny afforded to the matter-of-fact buttons on my backpack whenever I’m visiting the House of Commons.

Security guards will often make a show of examining each round pin, oddly expressing particular concern with such slogans as “challenge racism” and “take action on violence against women dec 6.”

“Are you serious?” I’ll ask every time an official tells me they will have to confiscate the purportedly radical paraphernalia. Though on one visit, a friendly female guard gave me back the buttons and whispered, “Just put them in your pocket. None of us really think there’s a problem with this.”

But clearly it can sometimes be too political — threatening even — to call out systemic racism, sexism, and discrimination. So much so that at the heart of our government, where freedom of expression is supposedly sacrosanct, citizens are unable to exercise the rights they are promised under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

So when is it problematic to raise apparently controversial issues in the public sphere, and when is it OK? The key it seems is how calls for social change are presented to the wider public.

When Equal Voice Canada was initially inviting diverse, young women from across the country to apply for the opportunity to represent their ridings in Ottawa on International Women’s Day, no one would have imagined the impact such an initiative would have. The sight of 338 articulate, passionate, young women underscored the need for increased female representation in the political arena more clearly than various protests or persuasive arguments could have.

The action brilliantly shone a spotlight on the fact that only a quarter of Canada’s federal seats are actually held by women. Too many in our society, men in particular, currently believe government is doing enough to promote equality according to recent analysis by Ipsos. Such discrepancy highlights the need for women to find new and innovative ways to better articulate their ongoing challenges. Remember, women in Canada still make 87 cents to a man’s dollar — and that’s not all that’s wrong.

The same challenges face those who aim to raise issues of systemic racism and discrimination. There are protest movements, such as Black Lives Matter. There are public rallies like the ones Canadians saw converge across the country earlier this month, both for and against Motion 103, a private member’s bill seeking to condemn and find solutions to addressing Islamophobia.

Public protests are necessary in a democracy but the risk is that they can sometimes be perceived negatively if it’s the clashes or conflicts that make the headlines rather than the substantive arguments.

For example, other religious and ethnic minorities have previously been mentioned in private members’ motions that were unanimously adopted without fanfare. But a new poll from Forum Research suggests that the divisive fear mongering around Motion 103 has left a significant number of Canadians wanting to remove any focus on the Canadian Muslim community.

This despite existing evidence that shows hate crimes against Muslims in Canada has seen the most significant rise of any community; and despite several other polls that indicate Canadian Muslims are most frequently discriminated against, or most likely to be the target of bias — indeed more than any other group in Canada.

The challenge for those seeking meaningful change is striking and maintaining the right tone. It’s also imperative to demonstrate the wider impacts of each cause.

Take the efforts put forward by parents and community members from across minority groups and beyond in the York Region District School Board north of Toronto. They banded together to stand up against anti-Black racism and Islamophobia with a unified voice. Their collaboration helped bring public attention to the negative experiences of countless students and families and necessitated a ministry-mandated review of the board. Recommendations are on their way.

Last year, communities took part in various consultations held by the Ontario government across the province to highlight the barriers to participation and systemic discrimination they experience. That input led to last week’s unveiling of a new three-year anti-racism strategy that pledges to address Islamophobia, anti-Black and anti-indigenous discrimination, as well as other forms of hatred.

Buttons won’t change society. But the fact that slogans calling for justice can still be considered too political says something about the work that remains to be done. Those at the forefront of advocating for change are realizing that methods of delivery can be as important as the messages themselves.