One morning in 2019, Lady Dia and Trophy Ewila say they woke up to find their car had been vandalized — the back window smashed and an anti-Black racial slur written on the car.
“It wasn’t a robbery because they didn’t take anything from the back,” says Lady Dia. She says it’s likely that they “wanted to just destroy,” as other cars on the block appeared untouched.
For many people of colour, Kelowna has become an unsafe space.
In recent months, there’s been a string of racist acts in the city, as reported by Global News. There was the Halloween display of a body hanging from a tree near a confederate flag, the anti-Chinese graffiti written on a Korean restaurant, and the flurry of racist hate speech directed at women who weren’t speaking English on a bus.
“This is a city where it’s easier for somebody to put out a universal symbol of anti-Black racism than it is for Black people to get space to curate their own show,” Trophy says in reference to the racist Halloween display.
“Racism is cultural. It’s a cultural thing … [in these] uncertain times … we cannot use the same cultural ways of doing things.”
Trophy lives on syilx territory in Kelowna with Lady Dia. They’re both performance artists and Lady Dia is the city’s artist in residence for 2021.
Lady Dia says since she moved to Kelowna nearly a decade ago she’s noticed there is a lack of safe spaces for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour to share and hold their stories.
“We really are only existing in nooks and crannies and through the benevolence of just good people,” says Lady Dia. She’s a Lozi mother from Barotseland — the traditional land of the Barotse in Southern Central Africa — though she was born in Luanshya, Zambia.
“There are no [public] spaces that are coded specifically for us to be ourselves in,” says Trophy — no “place where a group of walking Black People or People of Colour is safe.
“You’re on the spot because you think most people are scared,” he adds. “[There is a] longing for connection … to just have a space where you can just be you, be free, be human
In response to this problem, she and Trophy organized the Ubuntu conference — a public event focused on how to “make this city more inclusive in a non-performative way.”
They say they invited city leadership, including all council members and the mayor, but no one from the City of Kelowna responded to their invitations or showed up to the event.
“It was no surprise at all because this is not a priority for them. There’s no sense of urgency,” says Trophy.
“The only time they’ll pop up, even to make a bold statement, is after something tragic … they’ll make a statement and disappear.”
Ubuntu — ‘how to move in liberty’’
As Kelowna’s artist in residence, Lady Dia saw an opportunity to imagine and realize “a more inclusive city, by creating more space for a greater diversity of stories and cultural expression in public art spaces.”
She and Trophy organized an event series that engages the philosophy of Ubuntu, which Trophy defines as “the wisdom on how to be, how to move free, how to move in liberty.”.
“We focus on arts, community and dreams,” he says.
“Part of this residence is talking about what are the number of spaces that can accommodate our story, our way — as opposed to always being limited to Culture Days to perform or waiting [for] when they have a story that they want to tell and then we come in to fit that.”
It’s also about challenging colonial concepts of time, they point out.
“You may have a building and give them the space, but it’s like, well, I can’t do anything there if I can’t engage in a way that’s cultural,” says Trophy.
“You have to be in and out by this time … it doesn’t let things develop,” adds Lady Dia. “Culturally, we give space to the spirit to also move like time.”
As part of their Ubuntu series, they’ve held art and storytelling camps for children and youth, and in October they hosted an art exhibit called the Circle of Ubuntu at the UBCO FINA Gallery.
The exhibit aimed to express and celebrate stories by Black and syilx artists, but it was “also an exploration of mental health,” says Lady Dia. “Because what happened for a lot of these artists is that they were pushed. They’ve been isolated. And it’s already hard as Black people to get access to … proper mental health support and holistic support.”
Finally, they held the Ubuntu conference at the Okanagan Co-Lab in downtown Kelowna (and virtually) on Oct. 23. They invited the general public as well as “administrators, leaders and multiple stakeholders in the cultural sector.”
Lady Dia says she emailed invitations to all members of city council and Mayor Colin Basran on Oct. 18.
“We will discuss the major role public art spaces and administrators can play in making this city more inclusive,” said the invitation to Basran.
“We would like to bridge the disconnect between artists, local community members, different cultural groups, public art spaces and resources required to have access to space for public gathering … We would also like to begin the culture of open conversation with the goal of finding collective solutions to community problems. Your voice, perspective and ear are important in this conversation in making Kelowna a more inclusive city.”
The City’s response
The Ewilas say no one from the City responded to their invitations or showed up to the Ubuntu conference. IndigiNews asked Basran why he didn’t respond.
“City council is bombarded daily with people who have great ideas, but if we don’t know them, and we don’t know their track record … their history … their expertise — I’m sure you can appreciate [that] we just can’t say yes to everything.”
He adds that his children had events that day, so he wasn’t able to make it. “As important as this job is, my number one job is as a father.”
In an interview with IndigiNews on Nov. 12, Basran shared that at that time he had not yet met the city’s artist in residence.
“This is no disrespect to her, but I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting her, so I don’t know what her background is in terms of this type of work.”
He said the council has “since apologized to [Lady Dia] for not getting back to her.”
“There is personal accountability for those of us on council, to attend events and be present and to not only just talk it, but walk it,” he says. “I have agreed to meet with her and have a conversation about the situation and race and discrimination generally in our community.”
Asked where he sees systemic racism showing up in Kelowna, Basran replied, “That’s a pretty big question … not one I’ve really pondered to a great degree, but certainly it’s everywhere. It’s within our RCMP, it’s within our court system. It’s within local government — all levels of government.
“And I would say that this pandemic has given rise to people to behave in ways outwardly that maybe … they wouldn’t normally. And that’s not acceptable, but I think it’s just pushing people to act a lot more primitively. And as a result, unfortunately, we’re seeing some ugly side of humanity.”
A meeting of hearts and minds
Trophy and Lady Dia met with the mayor on Nov. 24.
Trophy says they talked about the need for more designated safe spaces for Black people, Indigenous Peoples and people of colour.
“We said we realize that we know that they have no capacity to deal with the behaviour of the general population, but at least we need the resources for people who are facing these issues.
“[We want them to] understand the urgency with which we need to — they need to do something, or at least work with people who know what they’re talking about, who’ve been doing this kind of work.”
He says they’re setting up a follow-up meeting with the Mayor for January where the focus will be on solutions. As of Dec. 2, Lady Dia says the City has yet to confirm a date.
IndigiNews reached out to the mayor’s office on Nov. 26 for comment on the upcoming meeting and has yet to receive a response.