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‘I’ve never felt so much pride in such a long time, marching down the street with everybody’

Over 100 residents of North Perth put on masks and participated in a peaceful physically-distanced protest on June 20 in Listowel to show their support during the Black and Indigenous People of Colour Equality March. - Colin Burrowes Photo

Over 100 North Perth residents peacefully participate in equality march

LISTOWEL – The Black and Indigenous People of Colour Equality March held on June 20 in Listowel was not Eilish Brennan’s first experience organizing a peaceful protest. She assisted with the Listowel District Secondary School’s Students Say No protest in 2019.

She noted that she could not have organized a march like this without the hard work of her friends, Sarah Blazek and Ashley Briggs.

Brennan believes change starts with grass roots movements, so she felt it was important to show that although North Perth is predominantly white, there are many people who stand with local people of colour and minorities.

“This equality march is powered by peace and love,” she said.

The march, which wound its way from Livingstone Park to the bandstand at Memorial Park, ended with speakers talking about experiences with racism in North Perth.

“Just because this is a small, mostly white town it does not mean there aren’t people who face oppression,” said Brennan.

When organizing the protest, they focused on fueling it with positive energy.

“Peace and love are the complete fuel behind all of this and we really took all the steps we possibly could to protect our community from COVID,” said Brennan. “We have the support of the municipality. We have OPP present to ensure public safety.”

The organizers showed up early to mark the sidewalks with chalk every two metres so people knew when they were getting too close. As well, masks and sanitizer were provided.

Christin Dennis, one of the speakers, said for him the march was about equality, not just Black Lives Matter.

“I know as an indigenous person I’ve had a lot of racism that has happened towards me throughout my whole lifetime,” he said. “I’m 55 now.”

He said it’s happened to him in Listowel.

“Just because of my long hair and the colour of who I am,” he said. “I’ve had that happen all my life to the point where I suffered from PTSD. It was really bad. I had bad PTSD especially when I was around police officers, I would start shaking and going into convulsions because I was beaten up by them.”

Now he said he is at a point where he doesn’t have that reaction, but it still happens today. “There is still systemic racism in every town,” he said. “It’s not just in this town. Most of the racism that happened to me happened in Palmerston, it happened in Harriston Senior Public School.”

Dennis recalled what it was like as a kid being the only native person in his school.

“They would gang up on me and kick the life out of me to the point where they would need an ambulance to pick me up,” he said. “It was that bad and this was at Harriston Senior Public School.”

It might sound strange to people who haven’t experienced the life Dennis has, but he said he feels grateful when racism is blatant.

“I would rather see a person that is really racist who has tattoos of swastikas on him,” he said. “Then I know that’s a racist person and I can stand back from them.”

It’s the people who look normal but shun indigenous people and people of colour who Dennis said can be more dangerous.

“We have to make communities more aware that this stuff exists and people may say, ‘no, no – not in my community,’ he said. “Yes, it does.”

Dennis was glad to see many young North Perth residents show up to support the march and he spoke highly of the work the organizer did.

“It really makes me feel proud because it takes generations for healing to happen,” he said. “In my culture we have what we call the seven generations.”

“Who I am today is because of the last seven generations and what I do today affects the next seven generations, so to see young people coming out here today means that we can take responsibility that we’re doing something right.”

Dennis encourages people to speak up, take responsibility and be involved.

“Don’t just sit there and wait for it to happen,” he said. “Be part of the solution rather than the problem. Just sitting back is being part of the problem. If we can do this and come together… This is all we got, but it’s a start. I’m really grateful that she (Brennan) organized this.”

As the protest march passed through the downtown core, a lone man without a mask holding up a sign stating ‘Canada Is Not Racist’ met the crowd of over 100 who showed up for the march. He would not share his name with the Listowel Banner.

“I understand this is a joint thing between natives and Black Lives Matter,” he said. “I’m somewhat sympathetic to the natives. I don’t have any beef with them.”

An anonymous protester displays his belief that ‘Canada is not racist’ during the Black and Indigenous People of Colour Equality March in Listowel on Saturday.

On the other side of the sign he held, he had written ‘All Lives Matter’ and he said his beef was with the political organization Black Lives Matter.

“I think they are a destructive group,” the man said. “Burning stuff down in the States, spreading to London. I don’t agree with it. I think they divide people.”

The people marching peacefully passed the man. He followed them up to Memorial Park where he stood with his sign, and did wear a mask in the park.

“Canada is not racist because the underlying assumption is there is some systemic racism or whatever and there is always going to be racism at a personal level,” he said. “That’s just part of the human condition but in terms of an institutional, like a national or the legal system, we go out of our way to make everyone feel welcome. We let everyone in. Everyone is equal under the law. We try to make people feel comfortable. Why would people feel that you are racist against them?”

When the protestors gathered at the park to hear speakers talk about their experiences with racism, physical distancing was maintained.

Before introducing the first speaker, Brennan shared a quote from renowned street artist Banksy. “‘People of colour are being failed by the system,” she quoted. “The white system, like a broken pipe flooding the apartment of the people living downstairs. This faulty system is making their life a misery but it’s not their job to fix it. They can’t. No one will let them in to the apartment upstairs. This is a white problem and if white people don’t fix it someone will have to come upstairs and kick the door in so this is your chance to fix the broken pipe.’”

Up until the night before the protest, Derek Mendez was on the fence about whether he would take part or even say anything.

“The only reason is, we’ve been saying the same thing for 100 years and it doesn’t feel like we’re making progress,” he said. “So, hopefully we’re on the cusp of something that will drive that change.”

Mendez pointed out the difference between prejudice and racism.

“We need to understand what drives racism but it’s separate from prejudice,” he said. “Everyone around here has a prejudice. Racism is a system when all of that prejudice comes together and starts to oppress a race or uplift a specific race. That is what racism is, so racism is a systemic problem and it requires a systemic solution.”

Mendez gave an example of prejudice he experiences regularly.

“When people find out where I work the first question they have is, ‘oh, are you a truckdriver?’ I’m not but that is their assumption because it’s a prejudice,” he said. “It’s something they believe because of the colour of my skin, the only thing I can do at that company is drive a truck… those microaggressions exist and people make decisions on them.”

He took time to touch on the subject of All Lives Matter because of the sign being displayed in proximity of the protest.

“To put it in perspective, right now we’re facing the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mendez. “So doctors around the world, immunologists around the world are focusing on a solution for COVID-19. That is not to say that cancer is not important. It is not to say that diabetes is not important. The reason Black Lives Matter exists is because black people are dying at the hands of the police for stuff that nobody should die for… So to say All Lives Matter says to me, ‘well right now I know we have COVID but we’re not overly worried because I know we need to kill cancer as well.’ It is ridiculous just to think about it but that is what it means.”

Then Mendez spoke of  his experiences with racism within North Perth. He spoke of being targeted for security checks while shopping in Wal-Mart and being the target of racial slurs during games in a local basketball league.

“This past season I was playing against a team of young guys,” he said. “I’m sure I’m old enough to be their dad.”

During the game, play started to get a little rough and a guy started dropping racial slurs.

“The sad thing is we’re used to this because it happens so frequently, so I dismissed it, no big deal,” said Mendez.

The two teams played again last December. Two guys got into a scuffle and that same guy singled Mendez out.

“I wasn’t part of the scuffle, neither was he, but he picked me out and called me ‘you Indian bleep’ loud enough for people in the arena to hear,” said Mendez. “It wasn’t passive. It was very open and that was worrying.”

What was more worrying for Mendez was when the captains of the league decided they would ban him for four games.

“I was not impressed so I wrote a long email and pushed back hard and I got support and he was banned for the rest of the season,” he said.

But the part which worried him most was, even people who knew him personally thought they were doing the right thing.

“From my perspective he should be banned for life… but they asked me if I thought it was a good decision and that’s because they are trying to appease those opinions.”

Mendez encouraged people to have tough discussions with their children about people who are different. Not just in terms of racism, but people who are different.

“Having those discussions is critical,” he said. “If they grow up standing up for people who are different it comes natural as adults. If you try to convert them when they are 25 you are too late. Ignoring the problem just isn’t an option.”

Isaac Kuon was the only speaker who does not live in North Perth, but his sister-in-law does and she invited him to share his experiences.

“I’m a teacher, a coach and a dark-skinned black man,” he said. “I know what a lack of racism looks like and feels like. I came to Canada when I was 10 years old.”

As a kid in South Sudan, Kuon was surrounded by people who looked like him.

“My race was not a factor in everyday life,” he said. “I know what it feels like to exist in a society where you look like everyone else. It is easier. It is like being able to exhale. It feels pretty great.”

This put him in a position to see quite clearly how different it feels to exist in a society where he doesn’t look like everyone else and it’s very different.

“Being tall and black is often about minimizing your presence and making sure other people feel comfortable,” said Kuon. “I have to make sure people aren’t threatened by me.”

He has had friends tell him their first impression of him was that he was terrifying.

“I’ve had friends question my achievements because if someone who looks like me has succeeded in a meaningful way it must be because someone higher up wanted to do something nice for a black person,” he said. “Being a black person in a predominantly white society is exhausting.”

Just because a community isn’t outwardly racist, Kuon pointed out that it doesn’t mean people of colour actually feel comfortable in the community.

“Maybe everyone is welcome at your dinner table but what are we allowed to talk about? I know a lot about what it is like to be white. We are all steeped in white culture, politics and society,” he said.

As an educator, Kuon challenges students to surround themselves with people who don’t look like them and get to know the person, not just the colour.

“I realize that in small towns there may not be a lot of people of different races,” he said. “I challenge you to take the initiative to open yourselves up to the perspective of people of colour. Read books by black authors, watch documentaries and listen to podcasts from a black person’s perspective.”

He believes this is an opportunity to educate ourselves and start asking hard questions of ourselves.

“Now is a time to look outside yourself and think about the effect of your words, deeds and actions for people who look different than you,” he said.

While he was talking about his experiences with racism locally, Christin Dennis took time to express feeling great pride while participating in the Black and Indigenous People of Colour Equality March held on June 20 in Listowel.

Dennis took the stage last to talk about his experiences in the North Perth area.

“As an indigenous person, I grew up being the only native in a white community school and they always said, ‘you are not one of us’,” said Dennis. “I learned how to run. I actually broke records in track and field. It might be a little funny but I had to run for my life many times. I’ve ran from the police, too.”

Dennis described incidents when he was younger, when he was stopped by the police and questioned because of his long hair and dark skin.

“That actually happened here in the last five years,” he said. “I’ve been profiled many times in this town and I’ve actually been very grateful for the police who would actually call me up. I’ve complained. I said, ‘Look, I’m an outstanding citizen in this town.’ And they apologized and I’m grateful for that. I believe Listowel is a town that’s evolving. It’s a town that’s moving into a new understanding of itself.”

Dennis told the crowd about being a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. He asked the crowd if they knew what the Sixties Scoop was – many hands were raised.

“Wow, that makes me really grateful because there was a time when you didn’t know what a Sixties Scoop survivor was,” he said.

He explained how indigenous children were taken from reserves and adopted into white communities. It may have been named the Sixties Scoop, but the process of removing indigenous children from their families started in the 1950s and continued into the 1980s.

“That was a part of the assimilation process,” he said.

He told the crowd he is grateful they came together and marched.

“I’ve never felt so much pride in such a long time, marching down the street with everybody,” he said. “Did you feel that? It was pretty awesome, incredibly beautiful.”

Dennis said his two sons have not had the same experiences he had growing up in this area.

“I’m very grateful they don’t have to live that… I live with peace. I live with harmony. I try to live with balance. I try to live with spiritual understanding and I try to live as a person that is teachable.

“My kids, they have…” Dennis paused for a moment.

“They have white privilege,” he said.

After another long pause, he said he is grateful for that.

“They also have indigenous roots and they know that from me and I’m teaching them how to be indigenous, how to be native,” he said. “But they are very fortunate that they have white privilege and they don’t know what it’s like to be racially discerned.”

Heather MacEwan ended the speeches with a piece connecting the gathering in the park in 1919 to celebrate peace after the end of the First World War, with the peaceful protest held in the same place on Saturday. She wondered what North Perth would look like in another 100 years and how our descendants will look back on the actions we are taking to make the world a more peaceful place.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.