Roundtable: White supremacy in Waterloo Region

Local community leaders engage in a spirited roundtable discussion on white supremacy

We invited Ruth Cameron, Amy Smoke, Jessica Hutchison, and Cait Glasson for a conversation to talk about the surge of white supremacy in Waterloo Region. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Ruth Cameron is the Executive Director of ACCKWA, a consultant, a student, and a steering committee member for the ACB Network. She is a Black queer community advocate and mummy to a big kid, a baby girl, a cat and a dog. Ruth is the founder of the Audre Lorde Scholarship for Black LGBTQ+ Youth.

Amy Smoke is Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan from the Six Nations of the Grand River. They are an IndigiQueer, Two Spirit parent, teacher, and community organizer in Waterloo Region. They are one of the co-founders of O:se Kenhionhata:tie Land Back Camp, a queer, trans, and non-binary space for Indigenous youth and settler allies in the LGBTQ+ community.

Jessica Hutchison (she/her) is a white settler activist-scholar pursuing her PhD in social work at Wilfrid Laurier University.  Her research explores how strip searching in women’s prisons is a form of sexist, misogynoir, and colonial genocidal sexual violence. She has been a prisoners’ rights advocate for nearly 15 years and is deeply committed to dismantling colonial and racist systems that perpetuate harm and violence.

Cait Glasson is a 55-year-old queer activist, proud trans woman, and a mother and grandmother besides. She lives in Waterloo with her invisible golden lab Jesper P. Barkington IV.

FITSUM AREGUY: Thank you all for being here. There have been a lot of things happening in Waterloo Region that point to white supremacy being a big problem, one that has been a problem for a long time but it’s manifesting in different ways. So, I wanted to bring together some local activists to talk about white supremacy in the region and how to respond to it. 

RUTH CAMERON: I think that for me, what I’m thinking about is how when you use accurate language like white supremacy, immediately people very intentionally oversimplify and want to talk about privilege, right? They want to individualize it. They want to perform contriteness for their guilt. People are knowingly making a pity ploy that’s a move towards innocence. They know exactly what they’re doing. When we talk about white supremacy we’re talking about a structure or saying things have to fundamentally shift, but everybody wants to bring it down to their feelings, so re centering whiteness, and talk about how they learned they had privilege, and didn’t know what to do and got stuck and mobilized in their guilt. 

FA: Can you give an example of that?

RC: There was a group of people that told me that they wanted to do a land acknowledgment. Every single time I met with them I gave some constructive feedback on what they needed to do after saying a land acknowledgement. The action, the obligation. Nobody ever takes up an action, like this group that just wanted to read a land acknowledgement. 

That’s the first act of white supremacy: to appropriate language and then completely turn the meaning of those words inside out. I asked the group what the land acknowledgement is gonna do. They replied with silence. That’s the second act of white supremacy, a move to silence when people are called out. That move to silence puts all the work back on the person who’s challenging.

FA: Amy, does any of that resonate with you?

AMY SMOKE: Oh, yeah, huge. I’m thinking of so many different examples recently with Land Back camp. The ways in which we tried to go about having teams of Black and Indigenous, racialized folks in our municipal governments to start some good work. The first director they hired [the Director of the Equity Department at the City of Kitchener] is already gone. Right? I hear people say ‘well, this is what you wanted.’ No, it’s not actually what we wanted. 

Governments took our demands and the way we’re hoping to work with them and decolonize their systems and they screwed around with it and it came out so colonial. We said we wanted jobs at every level of their positions in there and yeah, now people are having problems with who they’re reporting to, and it’s going back to the exact same way. 

I’m seeing a shift of people who are already working for the cities in the region, and they’re just putting them in different roles because they already know how to work well in those systems. And they uphold colonial and white supremacist views of why they think EDI works. It’s just performative, it’s not even remotely what we asked for. 

FA: Just to clarify, these are EDI teams that were at the City of Kitchener and City of Waterloo?

AS: Yeah, the team of four at the City of Kitchener and the team of five at the City of Waterloo. I don’t even know why the first director left yet, so I can’t comment on that. But I’m going to assume the director started doing some things that they were hired to do and were not able to do the things they were hired to do.

RC: Something I know is that they didn’t cast the net very far when they wanted to recruit for these positions. That expertise exists in this region. They’re the people who speak out loud, get ignored, and worked around. If they do recruit somebody with expertise, they make sure that the person cannot function in their job, or have no expertise whatsoever.

White people say they’re going to decolonize a colonial system. You know how you decolonize? You abolish it. 

FA: Jessica, what are your thoughts on this?

JESSICA HUTCHISON: Last night, I was part of a panel discussion. They were talking about the EDI industrial complex, around how EDI initiatives have just become this, basically this business that props up whiteness. White supremacy has taken over these EDI initiatives and whitewashed them  

Most white people are afraid to say the words white supremacy and to acknowledge that we benefit — as a white person, I benefit from white supremacy. 

I am so happy Ruth talked about abolishing these systems because just as we were starting to talk in this conversation about this EDI stuff I’m like you know what, we actually just need to abolish these institutions. I’ve thought about abolition in terms of abolishing the police, obviously, abolishing prisons, obviously. But then when I’m thinking about, in this conversation — I don’t know if I should be saying this but I’m going to say it anyway — maybe we actually do need to abolish the Region of Waterloo as a governing structure of our community. 

I know it’s more complex than that, but white supremacy is so entrenched within our government systems that it’s, I think, impossible to decolonize them and to engage in truly anti racist actions because the clutching to power is so strong in these institutions. How do we decentralize power while the system is intact, right? They are the ones who have the power. The potential of abolishment is really interesting to me and I hadn’t really considered it before this conversation in terms of speaking about local governments, corporate structures and local bodies. So this is just really fascinating to me. 

FA: What I’m hearing is that the projects of abolition and decolonization are intertwined. 

AS: And what’s with the co-opting of all the words? I’m really sick of it. First we talked about indigenization — don’t even get me started on the word — and now we’re talking about reconciliation. We’re not talking about reconciliation. We can’t decolonize something that’s inherently colonial. I’ve always been one of those, like, ‘tear down the systems and let’s build our own’ people because we had structures that worked, that were not Eurocentric, not patriarchal, not white supremacist.

FA: Ruth said something about how people are often in a state of amazement or ignorance about white supremacy. Cait, I recall attending an event at Kitchener City Hall where you very clearly told white people that they need to deal with white supremacy. It was refreshing for me to hear that from a white person, and I remember a sea of shocked faces in the crowd. Do you remember that?

CAIT GLASSON: It was Women’s Day just before COVID hit. I spoke on a panel that was almost all BIR people. And I remember standing up and challenging white people because “it’s our fucking work” is what I said. This has to be us to do this.

FA: How do you see white supremacy manifest in the Region of Waterloo?

CG: Well, I’m seeing it manifest in anti transness, which is clearly based in white supremacy. You know, they don’t care if Black, Indigenous, and racialized people become sterile, but God help the race traitor who does as a white person. We’re also rejecting the idea of hierarchical gender roles and the patriarchy and all kinds of things just by our existence, and I think that that challenge gets us played back against.

FA: Amy, did you want to chime in?

AS: No listening intently. I’m in total agreement. I’m never surprised to find out the greatest frontline movements are led by queer folks. I’m never surprised. We are doing the most transformational work but it is part of that white supremacist agenda to erase the queerness from the conversation.

FA: What are one or two concrete things that should be done to eliminate white supremacy?

JH: We need to defund and abolish the police. They’re one of the strongest white supremacist institutions. We need to admit that the WRPS controls almost every facet of life in the Waterloo Region. They are embedded within most social services, within homelessness prevention, within restorative justice, within education. They’re embedded everywhere and because of their power in society and our community, they have significant influence. Whether or not they’re overtly directing their presence, their power, ultimately, changes and influences and shapes decisions. So to eliminate white supremacy in Waterloo Region, we need to abolish the police is one of my answers.

AS: Yeah, for sure on board with all of this. Same with the, you know, the colonial structures of the region and municipalities. We have to disrupt the status quo. The way in which the chair of the region sits on all the boards and they all sit on each other’s boards and the Waterloo Police Services Board is made up of all the regional counselors, it’s unbelievable. We have to disrupt the status quo. We need our people in. And I hate it because this is the system we have, but I mean, let’s get some people in there who are representative of the community who accurately represents us better than what we’re looking at when I watch those council meetings. We have to disrupt that whole status quo. 

RC: I want to get a little more specific about who does the disrupting. What neoliberalism does is spend a ton of energy on initiatives that give the impression that change is afoot while very little shifts. The latest neoliberal move is to do a few diversity hires that will facilitate the same, right? So are you going to hire someone who actually knows how to shift things and has a track record of change management? Or are you going to hire someone who is going to do diversity Culture Days while the numbers don’t change? So, let’s talk about those who move into those positions after the people who put themselves on the line called for something that was far more impactful and far-reaching.

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