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Alicia-Marie and Faduma are community activists and co-founders of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition. Scott Neigh interviews them about the group’s work to bring Ottawa’s Black communities together and to oppose anti-Black racism in the city.
The group came together in 2016, broadly informed by Black Lives Matter – not necessarily with any particular connection, at least initially, to the various other groups and networks that have taken up that name, but informed by the politics and the sensibility that Black grassroots activists and organizers from across the continent have brought to that slogan since it emerged in 2013.
Black communities in Ottawa are many and diverse, with roots in different countries in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as in the United States and of course Canada. A key goal of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition has been to create opportunities to bring these diverse communities together, particularly to fight the anti-Black racism that is so pervasive in Ottawa, in Canada, and around the world.
Some of their initial mobilizations in 2016 focused on events that were a bit more distant. For instance, they marched and demonstrated in front of the US embassy in solidarity with efforts in that country to seek justice in the aftermath of multiple police killings of Black people. They also mobilized people after a Canadian musical group singing the national anthem at the Major League Baseball All-Star game in 2016 changed the lyrics of the anthem in anti-Black ways.
Not long after the group was formed, the Ottawa police killed a young Somali-Canadian man named Abdirahman Abdi. The extensive mobilizing that followed to demand justice and transparency from the police was led by the city’s Somali community, particularly through the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition. However, the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition was also very active in supporting this organizing in whatever ways they could.
More recently, the group has focused on an entity called the Multi-Agency Early Risk Intervention Tables (or MERIT) program. This is an intitative that brings together a range of agencies and other service providers to proactively intervene in ways that, at least on the surface, are about filling gaps in services for communities that need them. It currently targets a particular Ottawa neighourhood where a lot of Black people and people from other marginalized communities live.
There are certainly gaps in services and barriers to accessing them. Efforts to expand and improve services, and to make them more accessible, would be welcomed by the community. However, the concern with MERIT is based on its invasive character. Information about people is collected and shared among member organizations of the program, and people are subjected to risk assessment. Depending on the outcomes of that assessment, they can be forced to participate in particular programs or otherwise subject to uninvited interventions into their lives. Moreover, the Ottawa police have been a central player in this initiative. They have access to the information at the table and they can be active participants in interventions.
All of this needs to be understood in the context of how anti-Blackness operates in Canada. Across multiple spheres of life, Black people are subjected to heightened surveillance and scrutiny, which contributes to disproportionate and harmful interventions not only by police but also by social services. A program which further increases the power that social services have to intervene without invitation in Black lives and that will lead to an increase in the number of encounters between Black people and the police is a dangerous one, and the fact that it exists may serve as a further barrier to people accessing services when they need them.
The group’s organizing to oppose the MERIT program is still in its early stages, so it will be a significant focus over the next while. As well, they are keen to organize more events that are focused less on facing external challenges and more on building relationships and community within and across the Black communities in the city. And they are always on the lookout for opportunities to be in solidarity with Indigenous communities and other marginalized groups.
Image: Used with permission of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition.
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.