What does black activism look like today in Canada?

To mark Black History Month, CBC’s Asha Tomlinson speaks to three young community leaders in Toronto to find out what black activism or #blactivism means to them and what they envision for the future.

Community leaders speak out on what they envision for the future

Syrus Marcus Ware, left, Sandy Hudson and Desmond Cole take part in a panel discussion on what black activism means to them. (CBC)

#BlackLivesMatter started as a hashtag and in a few short years, it has turned into a global movement.

It's the new age of activism where millennials are using unconventional ways to fight for change.

To mark Black History Month, CBC's Asha Tomlinson speaks to three young community leaders in Toronto to find out what black activism or #blactivism means to them and what they envision for the future. 

Sandy Hudson, 29, is co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto. She helped organize demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter organization in the U.S., protesting police shootings and enforcement issues on both sides of the border.

Desmond Cole, 33, is an activist and journalist. He's a big supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and has participated in #BLMTO events. He's also a strong advocate against the practice of carding by Toronto police and wrote a Toronto Life article about the dozens of times he's been stopped by police.

Syrus Marcus Ware, 38, is a community activist, visual artist, researcher, youth advocate, educator and radio host. He has collaborated with Black Lives Matter Toronto. His art challenges systemic oppression through the mediums of painting, installation and performance. He's also program co-ordinator of the Art Gallery of Ontario's Youth Program.

The community leaders came together as part of a panel discussion for CBC's 2016 edition of Being Black in Canada.

Sandy Hudson, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, helped organize demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter organization in the United States. (CBC)

Hudson on why she decided to help open a Black Lives Matter chapter in Canada:

It was after the indictment decision came down on Mike Brown's case [in in Ferguson, Mo.] and I was also really frustrated that I hadn't seen a lot in the media about Jermaine Carby [who was fatally shot by a Peel Regional Police officer during a traffic stop in 2014].

People were saying it's so bad in the United States, thank God we don't have that here.

People just don't know, it's just not in their minds, that this type of thing also happens here. I think I knew the support was there amongst our community, I just didn't expect so many people to come out to that very first event that we had.

We planned it basically all on social media in a week. We were expecting 50 people to come out and it was more like 3,000. This is telling me that something is missing in Toronto with respect to this conversation.

Hudson on racism in Canada:

In Canada, there's this myth of this country being this place that people ran away to be free and it's this haven. Maybe there's some problems in this community but just work hard and you'll be fine.

People need to understand telling that history, in that way, is a myth. This multicultural haven is non-existent and the effects of colonization on indigenous people and black people across the Americas and beyond has affected all black people in a negative way.

Hudson on one word to describe the future of black activism in Canada:

Revolution. When I say revolution, I think we really need to look at how society is structured because these Band-Aid solutions, it's not good enough. It's not going to bring on this revolution that we're talking about.

We can't put Band-Aids on carding and other issues. There's still going to be anti-black racism in policing, so why don't we look at it holistically.

Activist and journalist Desmond Cole wrote a Toronto Life article about the dozens of times he’s been stopped by police. (CBC)

Cole on how it feels to be stopped 50 times by police:

It's infuriating. It's very hard to explain to people who don't have to think like that, what it feels like and how humiliating it can be, how mentally stressful and debilitating it can be.

So the important thing for people who don't experience this ... is to listen. There's a lot of dismissal when we tell our stories.

I'm very happy that my story in Toronto Life last year did so well, but I'm also sad that it took the cover of a glossy magazine to get people to pay attention to something that's been said in this country for decades. 

Cole on the impact of social media:

We have the power now with our own cellphone cameras to document a protest and to send it real time around the world. We have bypassed the general regular channels for getting information and because … our stories are not getting out there the way that we want them out there, we're just doing it ourselves now.

Social media can be deceptive, however, because the real work is not happening there. The real work is happening in communities, it's happening in small groups of people. The real work often is just meeting one-on-one with folks and building relationships.

Social media can enable that but it doesn't get you all of the way there. The real work has to go well beyond just what gets retweeted or what gets on a Facebook message.

Cole on future hopes for Canadian black activism:

What happens sometimes is that we get so used to hearing about these bad news stories that it is difficult to imagine something else.

We have to be able to do it as black people in our communities, and we have to encourage that from everybody else, that there is a different way for us to all interact with each other.

This is not fate. This is not our blood or our skin that puts us in these situations. It's human decisions and those decisions can change if we imagine something else.

Syrus Marcus Ware, a community activist and visual artist, has collaborated with Black Lives Matter Toronto. (CBC)

Ware on being a black transgender man in Canada:

The intersectionality, when you bring things together and you look at race and gender and disability and all of these different things together, you really do get a window of what the experience of marginality is in Canada.

When you have experiences of vulnerability, people discard your story because there's an assumption that if you weren't so different, perhaps these things wouldn't happen to you. I understand the experiences of my father, of my uncle, of my cousins, all of whom had repeated interactions with police, in a different way than before my transition.

Ware on using art as a tool for activism:

One of the great things about art is that it can be a relatively non-threatening inroad for people so you can get somebody engaged in an esthetic conversation. Maybe they love the way the eyes are drawn in a portrait, maybe they are really interested in the technique or scale of the work.

They get drawn in and then you find out that the work is all about Black Lives Matter or the work is all about supporting activism in this country. That's a lot of what my work is about, celebrating activism and activists' lives.

Ware on what the future of black activism should look like:

One of the things I think we really need to do in our activism is to not only focus on the things that we want to change but to start to paint a picture, perhaps literally, about what kind of future communities we want to live in.

What we really need is structural change. We need to start rebuilding our societies in ways that work for all of us because a lot of folks are getting left behind, so that we all have not only what we need to survive but thrive.

Asha Tomlinson hosts Being Black in Canada on CBC News Network Sunday Feb. 7 at 5 p.m. For more air times through February, see the News Network schedule. The program looks at the history of black activism in this country.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?