As the executive director of the Hamilton Anti-Racism Resource Centre (HARRC), Lyndon George holds a prominent role in helping residents who are experiencing discrimination and racism. In this Q&A, George talks about growing up in Hamilton in the ’80s and ’90s, the challenges facing HARRC and the city today, and his hopes for the future.
What is your origin story?
I’m usually a very private person about myself. The story’s not about one individual, but how we collectively move towards positive change. I think each of us, our own stories, do influence the way in which we’d like to see that change happen.
My family is originally from Trinidad & Tobago. My aunt – a Trinidadian-born, U.K.-educated nurse at Henderson Hospital – had moved to Hamilton. My mother and sister followed suit, coming to Canada in the early 1970s. Mom worked at Consumer’s Dominion Glass as a factory worker.
I was born in Hamilton, this city that I returned back to after going away to university. It’s a community that’s provided me with the foundation of who I am today. I don’t think I give Hamilton enough credit for the experiences that led me to the work I’m in now.
Most of my social justice roots and influences come from my mom and understanding what it was like for her as a newcomer to Canada and a single woman navigating the world with two kids.
I grew up on the east Mountain. Towards middle school, we moved into a new community housing complex. I remember the mayor of Hamilton came to the opening to cut cake and share with the community. That was a pivotal moment to see how housing and community activism were essential to providing that opportunity for me. Political leaders always had a role to play in providing housing to our community. It was an affordable home for a single mom to raise her two kids, a vibrant neighbourhood where people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and working-class families lived together.
I saw the changes that took place when we lived there, when the City gave management responsibilities over to private property management firms, and the resulting difference in the quality of maintenance and support. I also saw how cuts to public housing and changes to the provincial government affected our quality of life when the downloading of services began in the 1990s. I don’t think people understand how much real affordable housing serves as places for opportunities for underprivileged families.
What were some important moments early on in your life?
On the Mountain, healthcare was all around me. I had a unique insight into the workings of our healthcare system thanks to my aunt. Our family doctor was at the end of the street, and Henderson (now Juravinski) was down the road, and the hospital where I was born was just down the street. Healthcare is so intrinsic to Hamilton and I didn’t realize it until I left for university in Ottawa. It made me advocate for a healthcare system that I grew up around. It’s possible, we just haven’t invested in it and protected it.
I was an air cadet and when I was 13, we took a trip to Washington, D.C. That was no small experience for a kid to literally walk onto Andrews Air Force Base and watch Bill Clinton board Air Force One, or to go to Capitol Hill and see the halls and chambers where people were making change happening during a Democratic presidency. That influenced how I saw the role that government played in people’s lives.
As this was pre-9/11, we were able to walk the halls of the Pentagon, where they had pictures and monuments to the Tuskegee Airmen. I saw what Black men could do and overcome. This was a celebrated part of aviation history, but for me, it was especially poignant as a story of Black achievement. It stayed with me.
What is the mandate and mission of the Hamilton Anti-Racism Resource Centre?
We provide support and referral services for individuals who are encountering racism here in Hamilton. Our mandate here is to be able to support individuals, and educate the community about antisemitism, anti-Black, and anti-Indigenous racism. We are focused on being a voice for communities who feel that they have no one else to turn to. We also collect data regarding hate-related crime in our community, and we are here to continue to advocate and provide education.
What are the biggest challenges for you in your role as ED of HARRC?
Getting the organization set up for success in the long term. More resources allow you to do more things, but you have to have sustainable resources to do it. Developing core capabilities and external partnerships to ensure we fulfill HARRC’s mission. Ensuring we’re communicating effectively to communities to let them know where and what resources are available. Being present in important community discussions. Articulating the vision in a way that moves the conversation along without polarizing it. That’s a social justice lens that I hope I bring to the table and build that into the way we connect with community.
What are your priorities or goals for HARRC, and what do you want to see get accomplished first (or change sooner than later in Hamilton)?
The top priority right now is ensuring that people are aware that we’re here, that we’re providing resources in a way that provides value, so that they turn to us. We’re not just gathering data, but using that information to help change the direction of what they’re encountering.
One key thing we’re trying to build is a reporting tool with the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion where people report, in real time, what they’re encountering.
Are there opportunities to work with the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI) as you move forward? Do your goals or mandates overlap at all?
Our response to incidents of racism dovetail well with HCCI’s role in providing broad education on matters of civil inclusion. We engage with them regularly on matters of civic engagement.
It’s interesting that newer or smaller organizations such as HARRC and HCCI get asked about overlapping mandates, as most other larger and well-known groups are almost never asked that question. There are always many areas, such as the housing crisis, where service providers overlap. We have to step back and ask, “Why are we making that comparison?”
For HARRC, we have identified areas in the community where we can help that also intersect with other concerns and we provide that assistance. There is a difference but lots of room for collaboration with HCCI and other groups with similar mandates. We do support each other and stepping back from a comparison role is really important when looking at who provides these roles.
Who would you say has been your biggest inspiration, both professionally and personally?
Nelson Mandela’s story is important. On the morning when he was released from prison, Mom held me back from going to school. “You’re going to be late this morning because you need to watch this,” she said. When I eventually got to class, I realized I was the only one in the class who saw how important that moment was for Black inspiration. Mandela was always that inspiration for hope.
On a local level, Lincoln Alexander was one of my great inspirations. I met him at the corner of Catharine and King one day when I was about seven or eight years old. Looking up at him and being told who he was, I remember thinking, “Wow, anything is possible.”
My sister is also someone whom I have a lot of respect and admiration for, and there’s an 11-year difference between us. We talk about our families coming here at a very young age, and her going through tense experiences of anti-Black racism as a Black woman and having a younger brother and shedding light on what I was going through was helpful. I have a lot of love and respect for her.
As a Black man living in Hamilton, what are your own experiences with racism? How did they affect you?
I experienced what it’s like to be stopped while riding my bike for no reason by police. I wondered at the time, “Why is this happening?”
You’re encountering, as a young Black man in the community, how you’re treated differently due to the colour of your skin, in the community where you live. That made me want to understand how you can go about your day, but depending on your postal code, the colour of your skin, the perceptions and biases you encounter, people will see you in a different way.
I was frustrated whenever those encounters would happen, and not having a language to talk about it. There were many such incidents in our community that spurred similar questions. Why are police in my schools? Why am I being asked about where I got my bike? Why is the liaison of the police only talking to the Black students at the school? Why are we always having to advocate for ourselves? Was no one else supporting us?
These were key moments that led me to wanting to study criminology and criminal justice in university, and led me to go to Carleton.
I’m not naïve to think that one person alone can change things, and I also know that not everyone who puts on a police uniform isn’t trying to do the work. I think policy is one way to do it. How much has changed? We look at the stats and still see the disproportionate use of force in communities.
What are your thoughts on the emergence, and normalization, of racist elements – the Proud Boys, for example – not only in Hamilton, but across Canada?
We saw an uptick in these trends after a particular individual in the White House validated those views in the mainstream. When we see the rise of white nationalism, white power, and other hate movements, whether it’s the Proud Boys or the Yellow Vests, we can’t minimize that conversation. We need a collective response, and it can’t just be those from organizations who do this work to respond. There is a role for government and for political leadership to understand the nuances and complications behind the hate that is there. They must play a real role.
In this cultural moment, there are many who look to the institution of government and say, “This is the problem, what’s the point?” You need only look to what happened in Ottawa this past winter to see the effect of that.
I have hope that we can still change things. That’s why I decided to step into this role. There’s an opportunity there to allow my experiences there to help empower people, especially young people, to change the community for the better.
Are Canadians finally coming to terms with our country’s historical treatment of Indigenous people?
We saw with the unmarked graves that there is still more work to be done about how we confront the lived history of anti-Indigenous racism in Canada and how much more work we still have to do. There is still more work to do on Truth and Reconciliation, and it often falls on those who have been most impacted to lead and hold these spaces accountable, and then being told to just wait as we continue to work towards real change.
What excites you most about Hamilton?
I’m excited to see how we can continue to evolve as a city around challenging issues with so many new faces moving into Hamilton. As we go into the municipal election, many new voices will be here confronting issues like affordability, health, and community-building. I’m excited to see what happens in the fall. Hopefully, we will have new leaders over the next four years.
When you’re not making an impact in the community, how do you like to spend your free time in Hamilton?
I like to bill myself as Hamilton’s best tour guide because I love to share the beauty of our community, whether it’s running the stairs, the Rail Trail, or going to the waterfront. There’s so much about the city that I like to go out and enjoy. It all centres me and helps me enjoy my home as much as I can.