Dorsa Zamanpour immigrated to Canada from Iran at the age of two. Despite Canada being known for inclusivity and diversity, for Zamanpour the actual experience of growing up as a person of colour has exposed the country’s many ongoing racist nuances.
When attending public school, Zamanpour was excluded by her peers. She endured remarks about having ‘dirty skin’ and being the ‘brown girl,’ and she noticed other children of immigrants being similarly isolated and picked on. In an effort to fit-in, she stopped playing music from her country and bringing home-cooked food to school.
“There were a lot of factors about being a newcomer that I didn’t understand when I was younger, that I understand now, that had an effect on me that I didn’t realize,” says Zamanpour. She describes losing a part of her identity to a sense of shame about her ethnicity.
However, the discrimination in her own life spurred Zamanpour to learn about the larger patterns of racism at play in the country and to speak out about these injustices. She was later involved in founding two anti-racism activist groups and continues to find more ways to uplift others around her; whether through her musical talents or her interest in the healthcare field.
Racism in Canada
Even before she started organizing anti-racist actions, Zamanpour was always ready to fight against injustices.
Once during high school, she found herself in line at a movie theatre with four of her friends, watching as a theatre employee dodged through crowds of people to locate her group. He started talking about a missing cell phone and asked to check the pockets of one of her friends.
That friend was a young Black man. After he had turned out his pockets, Zamanpour made the group late for the movie by hunting down a manager and explaining what had just happened.
“[The employee] didn’t interrogate any other white people around us. Like, you didn’t ask to check anybody’s pockets,” says Zamanpour. “You’re not a police officer, so why are you asking my friend?”
The incident is only a symptom of systematic discrimination across the nation, Zamanpour says. She learned that racism in Canada manifests as an underlying bias that affects one’s perception of people belonging to ethnocultural groups, such as a teacher favouring certain students over others.
“It makes kids and even adults… develop self-esteem problems.”
Victims of racist interactions will also frequently be left with uncertainty. It is difficult to prove, and there are innumerable consequences for those who make such accusations, even when they feel they have sufficient evidence.
Zamanpour realized the importance of speaking out on behalf of those that can’t do so. She says the transition to activism wasn’t a choice for her,
“I’ve always been an activist. I’ve always learned to speak up when something isn’t right.”
As a result, Zamanpour co-founded two Calgary-based advocacy groups: Black People’s Allyship Movement (UBPAM) and Advocates Alberta.
UBPAM focuses on supporting and advocating for the livelihood of Black lives across Canada. Zamanpour is not as involved with UPBAM since becoming a leader in Advocates Alberta, which aims to target institutional racism at all its points.
Police funding negotiations
This July, Zamanpour represented Advocates Alberta while addressing the Calgary City Council to propose a 16 per cent reallocation of police funds.
She outlined how targeting the root of socio-economic problems would decrease crime and the need for police intervention, which she described as a “reactive” service that doesn’t prioritize prevention.
Factors that statistically predispose individuals to commit crime include addiction, mental health issues, homelessness, unemployment and lack of education. However, organizations that address these issues are allocated to only a fraction of what the police service receives each year in the city budget.
“It’s going to be a long road to the goal that we want, which is to decrease crime by stabilizing people,” she says. “Abolish [the] police and defund [the] police are very different.”
Though Zamanpour urged the council to create a new policy after the meeting on July 7, she did not hear anything about it.
However, in November, a motion was passed to consider reallocating $20 million from the police budget in the next two years. The motion was put forward by Coun. Evan Woolley in response to protestors and documented police brutality incidents from this year.
It’s not the 16 per cent that Zamanpour and other advocacy groups asked for — it’s closer to 2.5 per cent — but the increase in community service budgets will be more substantial.
“We’re going to keep applying pressure,” she says.
Hope for educational updates
After tackling the issue of defunding the police, addressing the Alberta education school curriculum is next on Advocates Alberta’s task list.
Zamanpour would like to see social studies material revised to include perspectives of minorities in history.
“One thing that’s missing is how Canada was involved in slavery,” she says.
French colonizers in what is now Canada enslaved Indigenous peoples and were involved in the transatlantic slave trade from the early 1600s. Though Britain had started making efforts to restrict slavery by 1793, it was only abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834.
Zamanpour says it’s surprising that this information isn’t included in the school curriculum, “The old textbooks are not doing anybody any favours.”
Additionally, Zamanpour and Advocates Alberta are working on an improved anti-bias training module for schools and workplaces. The training should lead people to acknowledge their biases so that they may be overridden, allowing them to perform their jobs without prejudice.
Zamanpour’s activism work is not confined to the work she does with Advocates Alberta;she also works towards addressing mental health issues through her passion for singing and songwriting, going by the stage name Dorsa Lena (formerly Per$ia).
She has released tracks on Spotify and Apple Music, some of which are aimed at addressing depression and mental health in order destigmatizing these topics.
“There’s other people that go through this and that they shouldn’t, you know, it’s not something that you need to be ashamed of,” she says. “You can be a competent, strong woman and still go through depression and feelings of self doubt.”
Through her music Zamanpour tells both sides of the story of womanhood by juggling confidence and beauty with insecurity and vulnerability.
Additionally, Zamanpour found herself drawn to medicine at a young age from watching her parents’ careers in healthcare. After a year studying neuroscience and another studying psychology, she settled on nursing as her chosen field.
As Zamanpour puts it, nurses understand their patients’ needs in order to effectively advocate for them to the health care system, making nursing an ideal intersection between healthcare and activism.
“Nurses are the ones who really get to know their patients. And that’s what I like – getting to know people well enough to help them,” she says. “You get to be a part of so many important moments in peoples’ lives. It’s really such an honour to be able to do that.”
A previous version of this story misstated Zamanpour’s experiences with anti-bias training.