Pascale Divertius told the crowd at the Feb. 8 Black History Month panel that Canada’s perception as a racial “safe haven” is false.
“Canada is very intentional in creating a multicultural myth and using it as a justification for why racism can’t possibly live here,” she said.
The Haitian-born co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto was one of four speakers in the panel discussion in Kinsella Auditorium.
Second-year student Husoni Raymond organized the event, after criticizing the university last year for doing little to celebrate Black History Month.
The auditorium was packed with students, faculty and community members.
The panel, moderated by communications and public policy professor Jamie Gillies, began with a discussion on how being black has impacted how the panelists have navigated their lives.
Divertius, who was raised in the United States until age 11, described experiencing anger and awareness of racism from a young age.
“In navigating my blackness and everything that comes with my blackness, it was either really sit in my anger … or do something about it and try to find a way to make my anger transform into love,” she said.
Alexa Joy Potashnik, the founder of Black Space Winnipeg, said she believes cities around the country are starting to yearn for authentic conversations about race and identity.
“I think being black in this country really comes at a certain price,” she said.
“And not just the richness and beauty of our blackness, but the struggle that is also associated with it.”
Fourth-year St. Thomas student Will Leek shared his experience growing up in Quispamsis, N.B., where he was one of four black students in a high school of over 1,000. He said he has been pulled over at least seven times while driving, way more than his white friends.
Leek said the police once stopped him when he was walking down the street in his neighbourhood. The officer asked him where he lived. Leek said he lived around the corner, and the officer responded: “Hey, Mr. Basketball star, tell me your address.”
“You don’t really feel accepted when you hear things like that coming from authority figures,” Leek said.
Mary Louise McCarthy said she grew up in Woodstock, N.B., “very angry” from the oppression she experienced, and left for Toronto as fast as she could. McCarthy, the former president of the N.B. Black Historical Society, said she was once at an airport and an older couple cut in front of her in line. When she asked the man why he had had gone in front of her, he said, “We’re seniors, we feel we should go in front of you, and you’re not even white.”
Potashnik said people of colour have “become numb” to certain experiences because of the overwhelming amount of micro-aggressions and other forms of oppression faced regularly.
“The white people in Winnipeg, at least in the activism world, are very eager to be inclusive and about diversity and these trending words like allyship and safe space, inclusion … are just very surface,” she said.
“In some ways the more work that I do, the more I realize that pouring into a community is the best you can focus on.”
Divertius emphasized that she wanted audience members to leave remembering that anti-black racism exists in every part of the country. The Black Lives Matter movement in Toronto was driven by the relative of a black man who had been killed at a traffic stop, yet received little attention from the public.
“I think this says something about the way Canada really tries to swoop this under the rug, and keep these stories, very much hidden,” Divertius said.
She said it’s important for the movement to focus on more than deaths when tackling systematic racism.
“We may not know the name of a person in Fredericton that got killed, but what does the black livelihood look like here?”
An audience member also used the microphone to share her own experience of being black in Fredericton. She described experiencing frequent racism in her workplace in the banking industry, from a co-worker grabbing her hair and asking if it was real, to being called the N-word. The incidents were so frequent she felt no choice but to leave her position, after complaints through human resources failed to help.
Many questions came from the audience, ranging from how to navigate a mixed-race identity, and advice for dismantling racism as a white ally.
The centre of discussion for much of the panel was the concept of multiculturalism. Potashnik described it as “a pill that the government and media feed to Canadians.”
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “The folks who believe this country is multicultural and accepting are those who are maybe not necessarily paying attention to the real issues.”