Thousands of people flooded Market Square Saturday and than marched through the streets downtown to send one message: anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism must end, and so must police brutality against those groups. In what might have been one of the largest protests Guelph has ever seen, especially in recent memory, a diverse group of residents joined a worldwide chorus of people demanding the elimination of systemic racism.
A sea of people gathered in front of a stage built at the head of Carden Street; others watched the gathering from overhead in the Market Parkade. Following the best advice of public health, everyone was wearing masks, or at least it seemed like everyone was wearing masks because anyone not wearing a mask in the crowd would have stuck out like a sore thumb.
As each new speaker or performer took the stage, one of the crew would spray the microphone with disinfectant. Technical issues were few and far between, and the weather was warn and sunny with the hint of a breeze. In other words, so far as political demonstrations go, it was perfection, and the crowd was in a mood to be supportive and engaged.
After a territorial acknowledgement, Indigenous youth activist Xico talked about the 500 years of colonialism that has intertwined the lives of the original inhabitants of the North America, and the people brought here from Africa and enslaved, and how no one wants to see it get to 600 years since First Contact with everyone maintaining the status quo.
“I’ve been fortunate enough in the past year to work with Indigenous people in health care, and people with addictions right down the street at the Community Health Centre, and there’s never been a single situation where I can say that the police were something needed to de-escalate,” Xico said. “All they do is interfere and I’m sick of it, and I don’t want to walk around downtown being afraid of the police, even though I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“We’re tired of watching our brothers and sisters be killed. We’re tired of waking up to the news of this viral trauma porn. You asked why we’re angry. This is why we’re angry,” said Kayla “Kween” Gerber, who one of the organizers of the event and the afternoon’s emcee.
“Today the Black Heritage Society is doing everything we can, and we are committed to work better for race relations in Guelph during this historic time,” Gerber added. “This is another Civil Rights movement for what is right. There’s no time to just stand on the sidelines. This is not a protest to come and snap a shot and put it on your Instagram.”
“I have been feeling really angry and afraid because of all the ongoing violence from the police towards the BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour] community,” said Desiree, who identifies as Black, Indigenous, and Latino. She was also one of the organizers of Saturday’s march.
“I am a mother and I originally organized this event out of the desire for moms who are not only worried about their safety, but their kids safety,” Desiree added. “I am feeling super-supported seeing all these beautiful black and brown faces in the crowd, and I am so grateful for all of you for being here. Thank you for showing your solidarity with all the Black lives that have been lost and the folks who continue to resist.”
Community builder Marva Wisdom lead the crowd of thousands in an eight-second moment of silence for all the People of Colour lost to police violence, the eight seconds representing the over eight minutes that George Floyd suffered with the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on his neck before dying. Floyd’s death, captured by a witness’ smart phone, is the catalyst for nearly two weeks of civil unrest in towns and cities across the United States, and in parts of Canada.
“We want this community to be the first in Canada to stamp out systemic racism by taking decisive action all the time, and it starts with me, and it starts with you and your neighbor,” Wisdom said. “Those of you who are new to the struggle, we welcome you. We are a big giant tent. We are inclusive, and we want you to belong. We know what it feels like to be excluded, and we do not want to exclude you.”
Wisdom challenged the mayor, city council, representatives to higher levels of government and Guelph police chief Gord Cobey to end systemic racism in our community, and asked the community to open their eyes to the fact that it exists, and it must be overcome.
“Some can’t believe that anti-Black racism, and systemic racism exists in this community,” Wisdom said. “When we come together, we drown out the hollow and shrill voices of hate and division. That is why we come together, and that is why we have a resolve for change. The incremental pain is dissipating, we want sustainable and lasting change, and we hope that change starts now.”
Spoke word performances by Audny Stewart, Natalie Ann, and Justin Reid added poignancy and poetry to the proceedings, expressing all the anger and frustration about the Black experience in Canada in verse.
Musicians Tracy Cain and Andrew Craig performed songs for the audience between speakers.
“We just want to acknowledge that racism doesn’t always look like hate,” Cain said. “It shows up in apathy, it shows up in silence, it shows up in ignorance, and it’s the refusal to actually listen and retain what’s going on. The fact that I have to do this again for my boys is not good.”
“So many words have been spoken today, and all of them have to be heard,” Craig said, adding that he had a story he felt must be heard, and that he hoped it wouldn’t diminish the stories from the community about negative interactions with police. He had a positive story.
“Here in Guelph, I did have one positive interaction with a police officer who was White and in a very tense circumstance,” Craig explained. “He *actually* judged me for the content of my character and not the colour of my skin. I don’t know who he is, but I say to him, ‘Keep doing that, even when your colleagues do not.”
After Craig’s performance, it was time for people to march. Gerber invited all People of Colour to come to the front of the stage and lead the procession out on to Macdonell Street and then onto Wyndham where the crowd march passed Guelph Police headquarters. The march then headed back uptown and through St. George’s Square, where officers with Guelph Police Service closed off intersections to traffic so that demonstrates could march through the street. Contact between marcher and the police was kept to a minimal.
Mayor Cam Guthrie did not attend the march at the request of the organizers, but he did post a statement of support on his Twitter feed saying that he looked forward to following the march online, and that he also looked forward to the conversations that will come after the march.
“I would never want my presence to distract from the important work being done by the organizers and the attendees,” Guthrie wrote. “To everyone marching today, please know that I will be there with you in spirit.”
“I’ve received many emails asking me why I support today’s gathering. The answer, for me, is simply that everyone has the right to protest; our freedom of expression and speech is protected in the Charter or Rights and Freedoms,” Guthrie added. “Furthermore, the crisis of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, and the oppression of People of Colour, is in itself a deadly virus that transcends our current climate.”
On the subject of the current health climate, the medical officer of health Dr. Nicola Mercer posted her own statement on Friday explaining why Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health was “allowing” the event to go forward. “Balancing protest and public health in this unprecedented time is not easy,” Mercer said. “The provincial State of Emergency is an important tool in protecting all of us from the spread of COVID-19. The right of people to peaceably assemble is a fundamental part of a free and fair society.”
“We support the right of people to gather in protest. WDG Public Health along with the City of Guelph and the organizers of the protest have strongly encouraged people to participate virtually,” Mercer added. “We encourage everyone attending a public protest to do so safely and do everything they can to protect fellow attendees from COVID-19 by wearing a mask, social distancing and practicing good hand hygiene.”