durham region black history month

Durham Region blasted for offensive Black History Month scavenger hunt

Today in "how did this ever even get approved in the first place?" we have a Black History Month challenge that encourages Durham Region employees to (among other things) dance to a Reggae song, cook an "African meal," and have a conversation with a Black person.

This isn't a satirical send-up of tone-deaf white people; this is a thing that actually happened, as evidenced by images of a bizarre "scavenger hunt" document distributed to government workers in Durham at the beginning of February.

We have award-winning Toronto author Desmond Cole to thank for leaking the document on Twitter Wednesday afternoon.

"Can you rise to the challenge?" reads the one-page worksheet as published by Cole.  A masthead logo featuring the continent of Africa in red, yellow and green is also flanked by the words "RISE TO THE CHALLENGE."

This particular form, meant to be filled in by employees and sent back to "InclusiveDurham@Durham.ca," contains instructions for activities to be performed during the first week of Black History Month.

"Read a poem by a Black Canadian Author," reads one section, leaving space at the bottom for employees to report which poem they read. "Dance to a Reggae song," "Cook an African or Caribbean meal," and "Have a conversation with a Black employee," read three others.

Participants are asked to write the name of the Black employee they spoke with on their worksheet after having the aforementioned conversation.

Faced with a torrent of immediate backlash following Cole's publication of the document, Durham Region issued a statement that was similarly criticized as problematic.

"Addressing anti-Black racism is a priority for the Region. Part of our Black History Month activities include opportunities for staff to learn more about Black History, culture and achievements," reads the statement, which was published around 5 p.m. on Wednesday and didn't quote anyone specific at the municipality just east of Toronto.

"Through engaging with the community and Regional staff we acknowledge that mistakes will be made while addressing anti-Black racism. This challenge activity is one of them. We continue to learn and strive to do better."

Please note the distinct lack of apology included in the statement. Everyone else did.

Some six hours after issuing the non-apology, Durham Region replied on Twitter to clarify that a sorry was in order.

"It wasn't clear: we are sorry. We recognize that missteps were made with this virtual challenge," reads a tweet published to the municipality's official Twitter account at 11:19 p.m. 

"For that we apologize, and we will continue to do better."

However well the creators of this challenge intended it to be, critics remain confused about how something so blatantly racist was ever approved for circulation. Some suggest that the entire situation reeks of a lack of diversity within the offices of Durham Region itself.

"Perhaps you should have 'talked to a Black employee' before sending this out," wrote one Twitter user.

"Do you not have Black people involved in the planning of any of your Black History Month activities?" asked another. "It's quite apparent here."

Current and former employees of the region added credence to the theory of a very white municipal government staff in Durham.

"Lol, I used to work there," replied one Twitter user. "So glad I wasn't the Black employee. There was like 2 of us in my division when I worked there. How uncomfortable."

Durham Region, for its part, maintains that "open dialogue and honest conversations allow us to better understand one another and area an anti-racist environment."

"We recognize we have a long way to go," wrote the municipality in its initial statement. The people of Twitter agree.

"Shame on you Durham — this is what my taxes are funding? Idiocy? Perpetuating racist stereotypes? Singling out black employees as a challenge? I'd like to know what disciplinary actions are taken for this," wrote one.

"Durham," suggested another, "maybe hire some non-white ladies on your communications team."

Lead photo by

Desmond Cole

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