Bee Quammie is a freelance writer and the co-host of The Kultur’D Show on Global News Radio.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve absorbed the seemingly never-ending stream of news surrounding the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police in Minneapolis. It can’t be healthy to take in so much trauma – in the middle of a global pandemic, no less – but I at least attempt to transform the pain and fury into fuel for my actions. One such action has been reflecting on Black Canadian activism. It has always been a force, and being aware of its past can help us shape its future.
One major failing of Canadian history education is that histories related to Black folks – save for the Underground Railroad, Viola Desmond and a handful of other notable Black Canadian “firsts” – are missing. My initial understandings of Black activism and Black-led protests consisted of the Jamaican history my parents shared with me, and the United States’ history of the Montgomery bus boycotts, the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I learned next to nothing about Black Canadian activist movements until I sought out the information myself in adulthood – and as a first-generation Canadian, that knowledge helped me redefine my role in the movement.
From the Jamaican Maroons who fought for their freedoms after being transplanted in Nova Scotia in the late 1700s, to the Black student activists who made history in the 1969 Sir George Williams Affair, to the 1991 sit-in led by Black women to secure funding for Women’s Health In Women’s Hands – North America’s first community health centre dedicated to serving racialized women – to the Black Lives Matter movement in the new millennium, Canada has been shaped by the sociopolitical actions of Black people in this country.
Last month, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) began their investigation into Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death while in police presence in Toronto. Many reacted to the SIU’s involvement with skepticism – while meant to be an impartial arm of police accountability, that trust has eroded, particularly within racialized communities. The twist is that the SIU itself was originally formed through the efforts of Black Canadian activists.
In 1988, Lester Donaldson, a Black man with schizophrenia living in a Toronto rooming house, was shot dead by Constable David Deviney while holding a small paring knife. Constable Deviney was charged with manslaughter and subsequently acquitted by a jury, and the fury over the lack of justice fuelled the founding of the Black Action Defence Committee, an activist group led by Lennox Farrell, Sherona Hall, Charles Roach and the group’s chair, Dudley Laws. After Constable Deviney’s acquittal, the BADC called for the creation of a provincial investigative team that would eliminate the existing process of the police investigating themselves – and the SIU was formed.
In 1992, the Yonge Street Uprising broke out in the heart of Toronto after a white police officer shot and killed Raymond Lawrence, a 22-year-old Black man. Also happening at that time was the acquittal of the American officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles. Reminiscent to what we’ve seen play out over the past couple of weeks, the protest was led by the BADC in support of Mr. King, but also in support of their own victims here at home – and a demand for the end of racism and police brutality overall.
Decades later, the BADC is still in service to the community. Although members such as Mr. Roach, Ms. Hall and Mr. Laws have died, original member Kingsley Gilliam said in a 2016 interview that the organization’s focus had shifted from the streets to the courtroom: “We are marching on through the courts because we know that the courts have the greatest opportunity to deal with these legal, constitutional issues,” he shared with CBC. “You have to be able to move from activism to implementation.”
And now, we find ourselves in a familiar situation.
Similarly to the Yonge Street Uprising, we are in the streets now as a show of solidarity to Black people in the U.S. and elsewhere, while also chanting the names of our fallen here at home. And similarly to Mr. Donaldson, Ms. Korchinski-Paquet is another reminder that – while the investigation is continuing – far too many Black Canadians in mental-health distress have ended up dead instead of receiving the supports they needed. The SIU was created in one case, and it is being viewed with distrust in the other. How do we continue to move forward with our demands, activism and implementation?
Immediately after Ms. Korchinski-Paquet’s death, social-media posts sprang up, tagging Shaun King – a popular yet problematic amplifier of racial issues in the U.S. – to alert him to her story. I was frustrated. Why, I wondered, did we need an American figure to step in? Why didn’t people, many of whom I assumed to be Canadians, know of Canadian activists and amplifiers that they could have sought out instead?
Over the past few weeks, the deluge of national corporate statements against anti-Black racism has been matched with a flood of tweets highlighting the names of Black Canadians and Black Canadian organizations who are vocal and active when it comes to eradicating racism and police brutality. Like the founding mothers of Women’s Health In Women’s Hands and the valiant activists who created the BADC, people who are doing the work now will be looked upon as history makers in the future. Perhaps the repression of the history of Black Canadian activism has been done to help maintain the façade of Canadian exceptionalism. The assumption that Black Canadians, unlike our unruly neighbours to the south, are polite in our disagreements and are ultimately satisfied with our existence here is valuable currency when it comes to Canada’s position on the world stage. But in moments such as the one we’re living through now, it’s important to remember that we have always been steadfast in our fight for our freedoms and our lives in this country. When it comes to Black activism, we need external solidarity, not external leadership. We’ve got this, because we always have.
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