The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020 has sparked international protests in solidarity with the African American community and condemnation of recurring police brutality against Black people in the United States.
When news of such tragedies makes its way north of the border, the response is frequently sympathetic, but the events are often dismissed as a consequence of heightened racial tensions in America and a perception that anti-Black racism does not exist in Canada.
On the same day as Floyd’s death, 1,200 miles away in Manhattan, a white woman was captured on camera in Central Park calling the police claiming a Black man threatened her when he had simply requested she put her dog on a leash, as per the park’s rules. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she warned him. The video went viral and her behaviour was widely condemned as racist. Media reports over the following days uncovered she is likely Canadian.
There have been several reports outlining racial profiling and racial discrimination in Canada, including this one from the Ontario Human Rights Commission and this one from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Additional resources can be found on the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s website.
The death of Floyd has been a watershed moment in the U.S. and internationally. The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) has taken time to reflect on the resulting Black Lives Matter marches and protests.
“As the national association for REALTORS®, it is imperative that we acknowledge the dehumanizing prejudice that impacts our Black members and clients,” said CREA CEO Michael Bourque. “Canada must address its own racism, and significant steps to address it by all facets of society are long overdue.”
Over the past weeks, we have reached out to our membership and they have reached out to us. Their candour and courage in publicly speaking to their personal experiences is greatly appreciated, and we hope it will help their colleagues in the REALTOR® community better understand why change is needed.
“At a young age, my parents coached my brother and I on how to act if we were ever detained by police,” recalls Bethany King, a REALTOR® and salesperson working across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). “Those memories don’t just go away; they are experiences that no child should have to accept as reality.”
King was recently subject to backlash for calling out a social media post appropriating protest imagery for a real estate-themed joke as tasteless. A flood of the page’s followers accused her of overreacting and lacking a sense of humour. “It’s not ‘just a joke,’ we are literally fighting for our lives.”
Beyond social media posts, King noted instances of racism are unfortunately commonplace in everyday business, a sentiment echoed by fellow GTA REALTOR® and broker Jasmine Lee.
In a recent Instagram post, Lee recounted a viewing where the sellers followed her and her clients around the property. Despite the uncomfortable circumstances of the visit, her clients decided to make an offer that satisfied all the sellers’ conditions, only for it to be declined without reason. A few weeks later, the property sold for less than the asking price.
Drawing on her 16 years of real estate experience, Lee points out organizational oversights undoubtedly contribute to a general lack of awareness. While pleasantly surprised when she learned her current brokerage celebrates Black History Month, it was not something she’d experienced in the past. “I’ve attended Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, but Black History Month would come and go without so much as a whisper.”
“Awareness needs to come from the top down,” added Lee. “Do brokerages have management reflective of the diversity of their teams? Do boards and associations have leadership reflective of their membership? Perhaps we don’t ask these questions because we’re afraid of the answers, but that only exacerbates the problem.”
King believes training for REALTORS® could go a long way: “If you’ve ever represented a tenant who is a person of colour in a lease transaction, you’re painfully aware that racism is alive and well in Canada. Training sessions covering societal issues can help make us aware of own racial bias and better understand the issues our clients are facing, which will ultimately help us serve them more effectively.”
Regina REALTOR® and broker Tim Otitoju also believes training is a helpful tool that could address ingrained racial prejudices. “Racism is not nature, it is nurture. Three months ago, someone cut me off in traffic, nearly causing an accident. The driver promptly rolled down the window and shouted that I should go back to my country, this is his country, using vulgar language, including the N-word. The most disheartening element of that exchange was to see that he had young children in the back seat who were witnessing their father, their role model, behaving this way.”
“Our industry is seeing growing diversity amidst the clientele, but also among REALTORS®. Education would enable us to take stock of subconscious racial bias, address it, and better understand the challenges our clients are facing in our day-to-day business.”
Otitoju also serves on the Board of Directors for the Saskatchewan REALTORS® Association and acknowledged more could be done to encourage participation in leadership positions.
“Board and association leadership roles are carried out by volunteers, so you can only work with the pool of applicants at your disposal,” said Otitoju. “That said, we can and should do more to encourage diversity in our board recruitment processes.”
Halifax REALTOR® and salesperson Chris Peters agrees, and as President of the Nova Scotia Association of REALTORS® (NSAR), he feels fortunate to be in a position to affect change. Given the outcome of his first foray into politics, few would blame him for giving up on the prospect of seeking a leadership role through the ballot box.
“I was running for student council president as an 18-year-old living in Sudbury, Ontario,” he recalled. “The principal called me into his office one morning, to inform me that the custodian had collected my campaign posters, all of which had been vandalized with racist graffiti.”
Peters’ commitment to volunteering for various community organizations eventually led to him joining NSAR’s governance committee, then running for the Board of Directors, and eventually committing to four years on the board when he was elected Vice-President.
“I looked at pictures of NSAR’s Presidents and wondered how the oldest Black community in Canada could only have been represented by one [Black] individual over all those years.”
Throughout his involvement at NSAR, he has noticed a shift away from the ‘old boys’ club’ and lauds the association’s progress on increasing the number of women currently in leadership roles. He’s focusing his term as President on preparing NSAR for the future by establishing a mechanism to bring progressive, forward thinking ideas through greater youth involvement and ensuring visible minority groups have a voice in the association, hopefully through a newly established diversity task force.
“I struggled with the idea of being the Black President tackling racism, and whether I would simply come off as self-interested,” he revealed. “In the end, addressing this issue is more important than whatever conclusions people will draw about me as a person. Whether it’s NSAR, CREA, brokerages [or] franchisors, ensuring underrepresented groups have a voice is critical to progress and I won’t regret having spoken up on their behalf.”
“Ensuring underrepresented groups have a voice is critical to progress and I won’t regret having spoken up on their behalf.”
CREA Chair Costa Poulopoulos agrees silence is no longer an option.
“The Canadian Real Estate Association and more than 130,000 REALTOR® members across the country stand in solidarity with the Black community across North America,” said Poulopoulos. “We must speak up to ensure systemic racism no longer goes unchallenged.”
Political leaders have also acknowledged anti-Black racism is a problem in Canada and called on Canadians to speak up against it.
In an interview with CTV, federal cabinet minister Ahmed Hussen revealed a seat at the cabinet table does nothing to prevent him from being tailed by staff while shopping in a store, and he fears for his safety when a police cruiser pulls up behind him.
“Diversity is a fact in Canada, but inclusion is a choice,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a position where we have these conversations decades from now with my three young sons. I want them to have a better chance to experience shopping, and to experience running in the neighbourhood, jogging, basic things that they shouldn’t be afraid to do. That sometimes I’m afraid to do.”
While it’s unfortunate in 2020 it needs to be said that Black Lives Matter, it’s even more unfortunate so many insist on taking issue with it.
It’s clear we still have a lot of work to do.