Black Lives Matter: From campus to Canada

Black Lives Matter: From campus to Canada

A few days after the video of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police sparked worldwide outrage, fourth-year performance acting student Michael Wamara felt compelled to attend a Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality in downtown Toronto. He called his friends, left his house with a mask and rushed to the protest.

Being there was a moment of release—all the anger and grief he didn't know how to express before came to the surface. The collective frustration seen in the faces around him let him know he wasn't alone in his fight.

After that protest, the fourth-year performance acting student felt pushed to be vocal about anti-Black racism and police violence, speaking with his friends and the community. Wamara turned to his Instagram page, where he uses his passion for art to share poetry and stories against anti-Black racism.

He wrote "We Can't Breathe," a story from his own experience in New York City. In the multiple-image post, a young Black boy is unexpectedly stopped by a police officer on the subway who hassles him for his ID before getting physical and pinning the boy to the ground. The boy's last words are those of George Floyd and Eric Garner. In Wamara's experience, New York City police had approached him while he was riding a Harlem subway train. He recalls seeing the worried faces of other Black people stop to watch him, wondering where the situation might go.

"That boy represents everyone. It represents every little Black girl, little boy, Black child, walking the streets of anywhere in any community," says Wamara. "What they feel on their chest and on their shoulders with what they see and who they interact with."

Wamara considers himself to be a quiet and reserved person. Growing up, when he found himself in situations where one of his peers was racist, he didn't say anything for fear of "ruining the vibe of the room," no matter how badly something should be said.

That's been Wamara's reality since elementary school. "Every time you call out that racism, someone in the room would be like ‘yo, chill out, like, it's not that serious,'" he says. "But really it is."

Now being one of the few Black people enrolled in Ryerson's performance acting program, Wamara felt forced to comment on race when it was brought up in class. It was in these moments Wamara first began to think about how he could find an outlet to express how being Black impacts his experience in the classroom.

"I had to do something. I had to find a way to be more vocal and more clear of where I am, where I stand," says Wamara.

"There comes a point where you're not allowed to be scared anymore"

Since the start of the pandemic, calls for action against racial injustice have surged around the world. Black and Indigenous voices have been at the forefront for demanding social change, holding authority and history to account—and students' voices haven't gone unheard.

Laura May Lindo, NDP MPP for Kitchener Centre and member of the NDP Black Caucus, says there's always been a strong link between university campuses and community organization. The work being done by social justice groups in the city and at large are "speaking truth to power," which in turn fuels a shift on university campuses, she says.

At Ryerson, the fight for racial justice has been a key movement on campus. And one of the major actors is the Black Liberation Collective - Ryerson (BLC).

BLC was co-founded by Josh Lamers, a community organizer, activist and law student at the University of Windsor. He was an undergraduate student at Ryerson's School of Social work in 2016, when Henry Parada, the former director of the School of Social Work, walked out on a Black instructors presentation which was described as anti-Black and misogynoir.

Because the School of Social Work acted as Ryerson's main faculty for pushing a message of inclusion and diversity, Lamers says it was more important to hold them accountable. "By focusing on that space and the fight of resistance, it really allowed for a different kind of reckoning," he says.

Lamers and his peers saw the incident as a trademark example of anti-Black racism in academia, and founded the BLC in response. Along with Indigenous Students Rising and other campus allies, BLC organized the protest against the lack of action from the School of Social Work and raised awareness of the hypocrisy in Ryerson's and the School of Social Work's statements on diversity and inclusion.

"For Black students who actually go [to Ryerson] and have a sense of what's actually happening, you don't buy into the social justice language, you actually realize [Ryerson's] been fraught with anti-Blackness"

Since its inception, BLC has worked to make Ryerson safer for Black students and community members—organizing the first Black Frosh on campus, calling on the university to scrap a proposal for a new free speech policy that was deemed "anti-protest" and calling on the Ryerson Students' Union to diminish police presence on campus.

The group also organized against the university's proposal to implement
special constables on campus—security hired by Ryerson who would have policing authority in "incidents involving assault, assault with a weapon, vandalism and theft, as well as the enforcement of smoking by-laws." Ryerson decided not to move forward with the proposal following heightened criticism from students, community members and BLC.

The same year as their founding, the BLC went on to demand Ryerson launch a formal university-wide climate review of anti-Black racism on campus. The final, 26 page report was released in summer 2020—a year later than it was expected to be completed by—and was criticized by the group as failing to actually hold Ryerson accountable for anti-Black racism on campus. Prior to the recent Anti-Black Racism Campus Climate Review report, it had been 10 years since the university had released any formal documentation of systemic racism on campus.

When it comes to the conversation about the Black experience in Canada "the same conversations are being recycled," says Lamers, adding the task report committee review is "a cycle that these academic institutions refuse to break from, as they never get to the point of actual action and substantive change."

"It's like a never-ending season of why we'll never deal effectively with Black people's lives."

Pascale Diverlus was a journalism student and the RSU's vice president equity in 2014.

That same year, news broke about the shooting of Michael Brown across the border in Ferguson, Missouri, resulting in the renewal of attention to police brutality in America. Diverlus and former RSU president Rajean Hoilett organized a protest on campus in response to the indictment of the officer involved in Brown's murder.

In an interview with Flare magazine, Diverlus says the solidarity she felt at the Michael Brown protest was what inspired her to continue her fight against anti-Black racism. Along with her brother Rodney and other Black Canadian activists, Diverlus would co-found Toronto's chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM-TO).

One of the protests organized included BLM-TO Tent City in 2016, a two-week sit-in at the Toronto police headquarters on College street.The action brought attention to the death of Andrew Loku after the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) decided not to charge the officers involved in his shooting. BLM-TO released their first list of demands during that protest.

But this was just the beginning for BLM-TO's activism. The group infamously brought the 2016 Pride Parade to a halt for 30 minutes to demand the Toronto Pride Organization recentre its message of diversity and inclusion to include adequate funding for Black spaces.

In a full-circle moment, BLM-TO made their way to Ryerson campus this summer, as members of the group tagged the statue of Egerton Ryerson. In an art-based action, they also tagged statues of John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII Equestrian. Their goal was to protest immortalizing historical figures that played a role in the systemic oppression of Black and Indigenous people.

Six years after the creation of BLM-TO, their demands remain unmet despite society's current racial reckoning. The recent deaths of Black and Indigenous people across Canada have exposed the urgency and critical need for these demands to be met. Black liberation groups have reignited calls to allocate money away from the Toronto Police budget and into racialized communities.

In Toronto alone, a Black person is 20 times more likely than a white person to be shot by the Toronto Police Service, according to a report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

"Canada has a history of just silencing our voices, pretending they're reconciling, and then moving on," says Miranda Davis*, an activist and co-founder of activism group Not Another Black Life, a social justice group focused on abolitionist and anti-capitalist policies, and community organizing to dismantle systemic racism.

"I feel like with this generation, people are just so blatantly aware of everything that's happening that this conversation feels fresh, but it's not," says Davis.

Calls by BLM to defund the police have not been addressed by Toronto, instead being met with the approval of police body cameras, an additional $1.076 billion to the Toronto Police Service 2020 policing budget approved in 2019.

"I think it goes back to this idea that you need to be pushing for change inside a system while simultaneously pushing from outside," says MPP of Kitchener Centre Laura Mae Lindo.

She says the work needed to address anti-racism shouldn't stop at representation within institutions, but should extend into policies highlighting issues affecting Black communities structured with an anti-racist and inclusionary lens. For Lindo, understanding the bills and policies that heavily affect Black communities is necessary to truly get to the root of what action should be taken.

"Canada has a history of just silencing our voices, pretending they're reconciling, and then moving on"

The Education Act, for example, "does not talk about racism, and certainly does not talk about anti-Black racism. But we've got [school] board, after [school] board talking about examples of anti-Black racism from kindergarten to grade 12," says Lindo.

Lindo says it was the efforts from those both within and outside the Black community that demanded that the government make substantial changes to the education and criminal justice system that resulted in a formal acknowledgment by the NDP of tangible solutions to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous police violence.

"What they're asking for is real change which means that there's a clear understanding," says Lindo. "It's not just an emotive or an experiential understanding of anti-Blackness, but an understanding of the root causes, the need for accountability and the need for change."

Both racialized and non-racialized Canadians in large cities like Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and Calgary have organized rallies in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to a recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute, 63 per cent of Canadians agree that systemic racism exists within the RCMP and support efforts to reallocate funds from the police budget to social welfare strategies. However, this past summer, nearly half of Canadians were still unsure whether they supported the defunding of police, according to an Ipsos survey.

When talking about Canadian media's portrayal of racism, Sandy Hudson says, "It's always a really surface level, very superficial conversation that lets policymakers and those with power off the hook." The writer, community organizer and co-founder of BLM-TO shared similar sentiments to Lindo and said that this level of conversation is at the expense of Black communities in Canada and is "simply not good enough."

Hudson says this year can't be understated in its importance for furthering the discussion of Black oppression.

"It was to the dogged persistence of Black activists, scholars, artists and teachers that we were able to impact culture in such a way that people are really questioning the police right now," says Hudson "That, right now, is unprecedented."

She says she remains encouraged by where the national conversation on race is heading after Black Canadians refused the "weak way that the conversation [of race] is often held in Canada."

Looking forward, Hudson says in spite of the lack of policies and the ongoing struggle for real systemic change in Canada, the one thing that has been permanently changed since BLM-TO started is the public's knowledge of the ways in which racialized people are treated by Canadian police.

"You can't take that knowledge away from those people," says Hudson. "So even if the policy to defund the police is slow to come, you cannot undo the fact that people now know something about the police that they didn't know before."

Hudson says she remembers when the term ‘anti-Black racism' was met with confusion from policy makers and journalists alike.

"It is now a common phrase. We have shifted society. Politicians have been forced to acknowledge [anti-Black racism] and that shift in culture is the most crucial thing that we can do when we are trying to shift the reality for people."

Getting allies involved in the movement is crucial because with consistent activism from Indigenous and Black communities, comes burnout and exhaustion from the labour of recounting trauma and discussing the issues they face.

A 2019 study for The Review of Higher Education found that marginalized students engaged in activism as a means of survival. Their personal experiences with oppression on campus were often what led them to resistance and activism, in an effort to challenge Western-dominant institutions to recognize "multiple ways of knowing, being" and learning.

The study also found that student activists with marginalized identities experienced "serious emotional, physical, and mental costs associated with activism," including exhaustion, isolation and long-term implications of trauma.

"Talking about your own experience is like speaking about someone really close to you passing away, it can never be desensitized, it's personal to you," says fourth-year performance acting student Tarique Lewis. "You're talking about people who are facing injustices, including yourself and your community, who you share food with, you laugh with."

For Lewis, there is a line between being active and listening, but also prioritizing health. There was a time in Lewis' life where it was all he was taking in. He began to lose sleep and was less proactive in school. "In all honesty, it hurts," said Lewis. "There's no way you could really look at that as a Black person and not feel some sort of grief for losing someone, especially when it's in the case with them losing their life in a situation where you could most definitely be in."

As Wamara nears the end of his university career, he plans on continuing to create and share stories that put a mirror up to society. He wants to share "honest and genuine stories" of his community and where he came from as a form of healing.

To him, activism feels like his calling; where he feels he has a "whole lot of freedom" to use his voice to speak up for what he believes in. Though with his activism and the current news cycle having a negative impact on his mental health, Wamara's looking for additional ways to process what he's witnessing around him by looking for joy within his community.

He enjoys spending time with family and friends, taking walks around his community where gets to see his neighbours sitting out on their front porch and smiling and playing music even though they may not be in the best of circumstances. This is what keeps him motivated to continue to speak out on issues impacting racialized communities in his storytelling.

Black advocacy, like all advocacy work, starts with just having a small community of those that are fighting for the same causes and supporting each other in using their voices for change, says Wamara.

"The more solidified that you become in your voice, who you are and your humanity, [the more] you will be able to share that with other people outside of that circle," says Wamara. "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

*Name has been changed to protect source's safety