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A group of six people stand behind a table with a wooden sculpture and various reading materials on display.

Workshop brings to light Black Canadian experience

Cpl. Adam Jackson, Cst. Natasha Dantiste, Dana Colley-Provo, Shelly Braithwaite, Sgt. Craig Smith, and Robert Upshaw all worked to develop the African Canadian Experience Workshop. Credit: RCMP


In 2008, Sgt. Craig Smith developed the African Nova Scotian Experience Workshop for RCMP employees in Nova Scotia after a report recommended more education to help officers better serve diverse communities. In 2017, the workshop grew into a five-day course, highlighting the importance of what it teaches.

"We were finding it was a lot to try to tackle everything we'd like to in one day and give it the attention it deserves," says Smith, who works at the RCMP's Lower Sackville detachment in the Halifax district.

The five-day course aims to raise awareness about diversity in the workplace, equip employees with the knowledge and skills to support an environment that's inclusive, diverse and free of discrimination, and promote an understanding of the obstacles faced by Black Canadians.

"One of the things we try to do in the course is make people feel as comfortable as possible to have uncomfortable conversations," says Smith. "I tell folks from the start that if I've done my job in this course, you'll be able to ask all the tough questions you've ever wanted to ask with regard to race and the African Canadian community and feel comfortable enough to do so."

Expanding perspectives

Shelly Braithwaite, a public service employee with the Nova Scotia RCMP who helped create and facilitates part of the workshop, says watching people learn and expand their knowledge is a highlight of the course.

"Someone can think there isn't a discrimination problem on day one and on day five, they say 'Wow, I was so wrong and I didn't see it,' and they pledge to go back to their unit and make changes," says Braithwaite. "That, for me, is the main reason we do this workshop."

The workshop covers historical content, such as the history of slavery in Canada, Black immigration and migration in the country, and injustices such as the abuse experienced by those at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. Smith says the topics are especially important as the stories have traditionally been excluded from school curriculums.

While the history is important, the workshop also highlights the current reality for Black Canadians and experiences with systemic racism, bias, and privilege. Smith, who worked as the Diversity Policing Analyst in Nova Scotia for six years, says using personal stories and learning scenarios based on real experiences can help participants connect with and understand the material.

"A lot of the times hearing the real stories has the greatest impact," says Smith. "When people talk about discriminatory practices, they can think that type of thing doesn't happen anymore. Doing the scenarios and talking about things that have happened make people realize how present day these things can be."

Robert Upshaw spent decades advocating for African Nova Scotia communities and helped create and deliver the workshop. He says that by providing a safe space for the discussions, people have an opportunity to look back on their own experiences. "It allows someone to reflect on who they are, how what they're learning will impact their practices, and how they relate to it," says Upshaw, who also teaches at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

Positive feedback

Braithwaite says support from senior management helped the workshop grow into what it is today. "When senior management supports the workshop and takes the workshop, it demonstrates how important it is," she says.

Until recently, the workshop was delivered only in Nova Scotia. But now, facilitators are taking it on the road and holding a session with RCMP officers and employees in Ontario.

"We can take something that the participants are telling us is worthwhile and should be seen by employees in other places, and bring it to more people. It's the natural progression," says Smith.

Macella Maxwell, an RCMP public service employee in Ontario, attended the workshop in Nova Scotia and is now preparing to be a workshop facilitator to bring the material to more employees. "I believe in bringing everyone together and, until we understand each other, we can't do that," says Maxwell. "You're building a bridge through the workshops and helping people understand what it's like being a person of colour in Canada and in a police agency."

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