Albertans are less accepting of racial and cultural minority groups than other provinces, according to a recent survey.

It’s against this backdrop that Calgary- based social enterprise Humainologie is trying to promote empathy by creating short films about minority groups that allow people to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

The hope is that such measures will make Albertans more accepting of diversity — a shift that may already be taking place.

Following the most recent Canadian federal election, the Environics Institute conducted research on Canadians’ opinions on the topics of immigration and refugees. In line with Canada’s multicultural reputation, the results of that research show the country as a whole being “more positive than negative about the number of immigrants arriving in Canada and the benefits they bring to the country’s economy.”

That said, the report states that while attitudes always differ across the country, negative views towards immigrants and refugees were most evident in Alberta.

“All humans suffer from that sense of not belonging in different arenas in different ways all the time, but I also think there are significant communities that face so much prejudice and discrimination.”

— Salima Stanley-Bhanji

When asked about the statement, “There are too many immigrants coming into this country who are not adopting Canadian values,”58 per cent of Albertan respondents agreed with it, compared to 50 per cent nationally.

Additionally, Albertans showed the strongest opinions in response to the statement, “Most people claiming to be refugees are not real refugees,” with 47 per cent of respondents agreeing, compared to 39 per cent nationally.

While these numbers may seem high to some, they come as no surprise to anti- racism activist Iman Bukhari.

“There’s a lot of shocking data in there, and Alberta…not surprisingly is one of the higher provinces that experiences a lot of these things.”

While filming a documentary about racism in Calgary, YYC Colours, Bukhari was constantly met by the same reaction: “Well, it’s Alberta. What do you expect?”

With the belief that sharing stories is a way to “touch other people and sometimes open hearts and shift perspectives,” Salima Stanley-Bhanji created Humainologie, a division of the Calgary Centre for Global Community, in 2016.

Originally from Australia, Stanley-Bhanji has lived in Calgary for close to 20 years. Her mother is Australian and her father is South Asian.

Growing up, a lot of people asked her the same question: “Where are you from?”

“That feeling of not belonging is something I can appreciate and empathize with,” she says. “Today, there are so many different groups of people…I think all humans suffer from that sense of not belonging in different arenas in different ways all the time, but I also think there are significant communities that face so much prejudice and discrimination.”

Looking at the LGBTQ2S+ community, for example, Stanley-Bhanji says, “It even surprises me that there’s still persisting discrimination against gay and lesbians,” adding that “certain religious communities and black people face so much discrimination.”

While Stanley-Bhanji remains optimistic that “things will evolve and our world will become more inclusive because it just has to be,” she acknowledges that racism and discrimination is very much still a problem in this populaiton.

“Unfortunately, for a place like Calgary, or Alberta in general, [change is] just a little bit slower. A lot more people here align with conservative views that very often are views that might be less accepting of certain kinds of differences,” she says.

The goal with Humainologie is to expose viewers to more diversity by sharing personal stories — opening their eyes to life experiences that could differ immensely from their own, particularly if they grew up with little exposure to racial or cultural diversity.

“In order to overcome stuff like discrimination, education isn’t really enough,” says Stanley-Bhanji. “I think it’s when we get to know another person that those important shifts that we need to make as individuals and as a community start to happen.”

Creating that empathy is at the root of Humainologie’s mission to “increase inclusion” and “reduce discrimination.”

 Salima Stanley-Bhanji is the founder of Humainologie. Photo:Alaina Shirt

EMPATHY FOR CHANGE

Stanley-Bhanji describes empathy as stepping into someone else’s shoes, an analogy many have been told to practice since childhood. She describes imagining what an experience might be like for someone else: How might they be thinking? How might they be feeling?

But of course, she says, it’s only ever an approximation. She believes that, while an individual can never fully understand someone else’s experiences, it’s the exercise of trying which strengthens relationships and brings people together.

“Empathy is like a sort of glue that brings humans together and, in the absence of it, there’s a lot of breakdown of understanding and relationships and intimacy,” she says.

Over the years, Humainologie has created close to 30 short films that aim to prevent these sorts of breakdowns. Stanley- Bhanji says it’s the visual element of film that allows people to get rid of their pre-existing misconceptions.

“It’s important with the work we’re doing, where we’re trying to shift people’s perspective on a certain type of person, that they have that visual as well. To think, ‘Oh, that just looks like the person that lives next door to me,’”she says.

Once the film is posted online, the stories are able to affect a wider audience for an indefinite amount of time.

“One of the amazing things about film is we have the ability to capture a story and preserve it and share it multiple times over in different contexts.”

Beyond being easily accessible, Bukhari says film can add an element of “fun” to an otherwise heavy or difficult topic. A medium like film presents these stories in a lighter, more digestible way.

She says it is “so important” to be able to make a “serious topic” into something “that people want to engage in, to learn from and be part of.” And that’s why she believes film can ultimately lead to change.

“I think almost every problem in this world, as you start addressing it, slowly does get better.”

While she believes positive change isn’t always linear — because certain trends can push racism back to the forefront—Calgary is slowly becoming more accepting. Stanley-Bhanji agrees.

“Twenty years ago, I don’t think we would have had a brown, Muslim mayor and I think the fact that we do, and we have for consecutive terms, is an indication of the pulse,” she says.

While both women agree racism isn’t close to extinction in Alberta, Humainologie continues to advocate for greater empathy by allowing viewers — at least for a few minutes — to step inside someone else’s world.

“As we get to know people from so many different walks of life, it just naturally has an effect of opening us up to the world a little more,” she says. “I’ve seen that happen in this community and I think it’s an amazing thing.”

Humainologie’s storefront is located just off of 17th Avenue. There are multiple screens inside to watch their films. Photo: Alaina Shirt