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Voices in protest: Sudbury marches to raise awareness of racism, its victims

‘We’re all human, we all need love, we all need to be respected’

Around four years ago, Daniel Akinyemi was running to catch the bus to make it to Sunday morning Mass, when he was stopped in his tracks by the sound of a woman yelling nearby. 

"N****r stop running after that bus."

The statement stopped him in his tracks. It was the first time someone had called him this derogatory term since moving to Sudbury seven years ago and one of the most significant exposures to racism he has been victim to since.

As time has gone on, the community has grown in its diversity and acceptance of these new communities, he said. Until everyone feels welcome and safe, however, progress must continue. 

"I really think there should be change. I think it’s happening slowly but I think we can definitely hasten that process."

Together at a distance, a group of around 200 people met and marched from the Sudbury Courthouse to the Greater Sudbury Police Service station May 31, to raise awareness to the presence of racism and stand in solidarity with its victims. 

Echoing from the crowd were the voices of the city's increasingly diverse population, that while varied, shared a similar sentiment that change was needed. Racism isn't an issue quarantined in the United States, after all, it is an international and local human rights concern, touching the lives of many in the Nickel City. 

Protests and numerous cases riots have raged in U.S. and Canadian cities since the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, whose death during his arrest has been ruled a homicide, and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Toronto woman who died after falling from the balcony while police were at her apartment. The circumstances of her death remain murky, though there are reports her death was accidental.

Organizers of this past weekend’s demonstration say they want to send a clear message.

"It was important for us to organize an event to let people of colour, First Nations people, people from different cultures know that we will not stand for this type of brutality and racism in our community,” said Monique Beaudoin, one of two main organizers of Sunday’s protest.

Both she and co-organizing, Laurie McGauley, knew this would be difficult given the COVID-19 pandemic and safety measures issued and enforced for its control, but that it was this distancing in particular that made getting together so important. No good was to come from sitting at home feeling “totally isolated, helpless, and hopeless,” said McGauley.

“People felt the need to come together to support each other to certainly support victims of racism but also it’s a show of solidarity and strength -- that we’re not going to keep just sitting back and taking this, and listening to this, and watching this -- we’re going to actually have to start doing something." spoke with several of the demonstrators to try to understand what drew them to the event. The stories they shared showed that racism isn’t a problem somewhere else; racism is an issue everywhere.

Ange José said it’s time for everyone to come to terms with one's own biases and privileges, get loud about one's beliefs, and stand up for those around you. Individuals of colour have tried to protest peacefully for the same rights they are fighting for to this day, she said, "it's time to harass."

"People act like we’re doing so much and we’re asking so much out of people, but all we’re asking is for some equality. All we’re asked is to be seen as equals."

This treatment should be universal, she said but particularly observed by those who represent our civil services, such as a city's police force.

"They’re our protectors and I think a lot of cops go into it thinking they're going to come in and catch bad guys and they don’t realize that they’re actually here to protect and that’s exactly the opposite of what they’re doing right now," said Davina Dagenais.

"Everybody is in fear, we don’t even want to go to them for things because we’re scared that we’ll actually end up in a crappy situation because of it."

Marina O'Bumsawin said she is never afraid to walk down the street or call the police for help, but said this isn’t everyone’s reality -- many people of colour and other marginalized individuals are afraid to interact with police. Children are being taught by their parents to keep their hands out of their pockets and remove their hoods if police are nearby, she said, all because of fear.

"These are people and they're being treated like animals, just because of their skin? It's ridiculous."

Sunday’s diverse population showed unity, but Aurore Mbonimpa, who was invited to attend the protest by a white friend of hers, said it also communicated the fear that still exists in Greater Sudbury. None of the black friends she invited showed up, not only for fear of violence but the unknown outcomes that could come from speaking up, whether that be a lost job opportunity or otherwise. 

Expressing herself publicly and how it can be interpreted by those around her is something she has always been conscious of, whether in public or on social media. Having been born and raised in the Nickel City, she learned this early in life but shared that it was one instance in particular that still contributes to this understanding.

When Mbonimpa was in Grade 4, vandals spray-painted “KKK” in large red letters on the wall of her family’s home spelling and red paint on her mother's car.  She still remembers what it was like dipping cloths into gasoline with her parents to remove the paint from the car, she said. That, and watching as her brothers hastily repainted their family home as rain poured down over the solemn affair. 

Why this was done remains a mystery, adding to her frustration like the countless that have fallen victim to unprovoked acts of racism. 

Bertrande Etienne still doesn't know why a sales manager at a local store chose to send four security guards after her, following an accusation that she had stolen a coat from a store she frequents downtown on a regular basis. She was simply browsing, not even trying anything on that afternoon. She had left the store, without buying anything, when she was stopped by security. 

The coat she was accused of stealing wasn’t even sold by the store she was accused of stealing it from, she said. Feeling targeted because of her skin tone, the incident so affected her that, to this day, she avoids wearing a coat in stores. 

"Everywhere that black people go we have to prove ourselves and it is very, very tiring,” she said. “We all deserve to be anywhere we want and treated respectfully."

"Our colour is different but the blood is going through our veins. We’re all human, we all need love, we all need to be respected."

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Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

A graduate of both Laurentian University and Cambrian College, Keira Ferguson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, funded by the Government of Canada, at
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