When Charles Nyabeze, the president of the Afro Heritage Association of Sudbury, moved to Canada from Zimbabwe in 1991, he didn’t know what to expect.
The students of the all-boys high school he left behind were people of colour, just like him. His new school — St. Charles College — was an all-boys school too, but it was very, very white. And he was very, very aware of that.
He recalls how on that first day of school, the doors of the cafeteria opened and, in Nyabeze’s recollection, the room went silent and all of these white faces turned to look at him.
What Nyabeze also remembers is what happened next.
“By the end of the day, everyone knew my name. Then I knew Canadians were different, that they were open,” he said, adding he felt that he was accepted, regardless of his skin tone.
In Canada, Nyabeze said, people can come together as one, “One Sudbury .... one human race.”
Nyabeze was one of the first speakers to open today’s Juneteenth rally in Bell Park that drew at least 500 people, who braved sweltering temperatures to show their solidarity with the anti-racism, anti-brutality message.
Today’s Black Lives Matter: Racial Injustice Rally was the third demonstration held in the Nickel City to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and its motivations of recognizing and eliminating racism, racial injustice, and police brutality.
It’s one of hundreds of such protests that have taken place across the globe since 46-year-old George Floyd was killed May 25 during an arrest by Minneapolis Police after he allegedly used a counterfeit bill, galvanizing the collective will of millions of people.
The traditionally American commemoration of Juneteenth honours the date (June 19) in 1865 when slaves living in Galveston, Texas, were informed by Union Gen. Gordon Granger that the civil war had ended, and they were free. The announcement instituted the Emancipation Proclamation issued by American President Abraham Lincoln more than two years prior, on Jan. 1, 1863.
Nyabeze chose to relate a positive experience in his address to the crowd. As positive and hopeful his message was, other speakers spoke with passion, anger and determination about the prejudice, profiling and racism they and others face everyday as people of colour in the majority white populations of Canada, the United States and Europe.
Brandon Petahtegoose, a member of Atikameksheng First Nation, opened the Juneteenth rally in Bell Park today with a smudging ceremony, a song and a prayer to help “prepare you to do the Creator’s work” today, he said to the crowd.
Later, he described how, being of both white and Indigenous descent, he was “the Native kid” to white kids and “the white kid” to Indigenous ones, and how that prejudice weighed on him.
He also described a terrible experience as an elementary student at McLeod Public School. His hair was traditionally long and braided as a child, he said.
One day, Petahtegoose said his teacher walked by and wrote something in his notebook.
“He wrote, ‘Take a shower, you dirty Indian’,” he said. He also described how his father’s anger and concern at this racist treatment, expressed to the school’s principal at the time, fell on deaf ears.
Standing on a spot his ancestors used to call home, Petahtegoose spoke about how the many small Indigenous settlements in the area now occupied by Greater Sudbury were flattened (including his grandmother’s home, which he said was burnt to the ground by a miner) and the people forcibly relocated to Atikameksheng First Nation and Wahnapitae First Nation.
He spoke about how his grandmother refused to be angry at the white people who destroyed her home.
He quoted her, saying, “If I show that hate, I’m no better than the men who burned down my house.”
He spoke about his aunt who lost five children to tuberculosis, brought to North America by white colonists, and eight others to residential schools.
“Black racism, Indigenous racism … these are Canada’s little secrets,” Petahtegoose said.
Liam Cousineau, co-organizer of local BLM events, said Juneteenth is a remarkable date, but it’s also remarkably unknown.
“This is a remarkable date, but it has yet to become a national holiday,” Cousineau said, in either Canada or the U.S.
TiCarra Paquet, also a co-organizer of BLM events in Sudbury, is a cousin of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the young Toronto woman who died after falling from a balcony after an interaction with Toronto police.
A impassioned and fiery speaker, Paquet spoke about how the socio-economic underpinnings of Canada and the U.S. were built on the backs of slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement and conquest.
Quoting poet Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”, Paquet cited statistics on prison populations and poverty, and how Black and Indigenous people are over-represented in both metrics.
“The caged bird sings,” Paquet quoted, “with a fearful trill, of things unknown, but longed for still, and his tune is heard, on the distant hill, for the caged bird, sings of freedom.”
On hand at the rally were several local politicians, Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre, Sudbury MPP Jamie West and Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas.
Greater Sudbury Police Chief Paul Pedersen was also on hand, alongside Deputy Chief Sheilah Weber.
Following speeches, the hundreds who braved the heat took their signs and their chants of “No justice … no peace … no racist police” out onto Paris Street, marching, fittingly once again, to the Bridge of Nations, which is itself meant to be a symbolic of the many races, creeds and cultures who call Greater Sudbury home.