British Columbia·Video

Large crowd gathers for Freedom March through downtown Vancouver

Organizers set the Freedom March to coincide with Juneteenth, an annual holiday that commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States.

June 19, or Juneteenth, commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States

Genique Baker is pictured at Sunset Beach Park in Vancouver after participating in the Freedom March on Friday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A large crowd took to the streets of downtown Vancouver on Friday to march against racism and celebrate Black culture, on the date that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States more than 150 years ago.

The Freedom March is held in unison with Juneteenth marches and rallies across the world. Juneteenth — a commemorative holiday on June 19 — marks the day the last slaves in the U.S. were freed in 1865 following the American Civil War.

Vancouver march co-founder Nova Stevens says the fight for equality still rages on some 150 years later.

"This was decades ago, and we've yet to achieve freedom," she told CBC News. "We're continuing the fight our ancestors have started. It's up to us, the new generation, to continue that fight."

The event began at Vancouver's Jack Poole Plaza, the same site where thousands gathered for an anti-Black racism rally on June 5. The crowd embarked on a two-kilometre march starting at 4:30 p.m. at the Olympic cauldron, moving down Thurlow Street, and arrived at Sunset Beach Park shortly after 5:30 p.m.

"We're going to make sure we're seen and viewed as people. We're human beings," said Stevens.

Friday's march began at Jack Poole Plaza in downtown Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A march for freedom

Enya Graham-Shewish was part of a group of volunteers handing out t-shirts reading "Love Black People Like You Love Black Culture" before the march began.

"I'm here to support the movement. I'm very passionate about it and I want things to change," she told CBC.

As the crowd made its way down Thurlow Street, volunteers and police were systematically blocking traffic at each intersection.

Anti-Black racism and Black Lives Matter rallies have erupted across the globe, events sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Subsequent instances of police brutality in the U.S. and abroad have fuelled calls to defund police.

In Vancouver, anti-racism rallies have drawn crowds of thousands, both outside the Vancouver Art Gallery and at Jack Poole Plaza.

This latest march was planned by Stevens and co-organizer Shamika Mitchell. The pair was inspired by the Vancouver protests, where Stevens was a speaker.

"People say that racism does not exist in Canada, but it does," said Stevens, noting that she's confronted with systemic racism in her daily life. "It's very subtle, but it's there."

"People will say things like ...  'You're pretty for a black woman, or a black girl?' Why can't I just be a beautiful woman? Why must you always make race be a part of it?" she said. "The world is not white. It's diverse."

Organizer Nova Stevens speaks to those gathered at Jack Poole Plaza before the march to Sunset Beach. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Watch: Crowd of thousands marches to mark Juneteenth

This is the city's first large-scale Juneteenth protest, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States more than 150 years ago. 1:25

Health and safety

Stevens and Mitchell have been organizing the march for two weeks. Following the march down Thurlow, arrived at Sunset Beach Park, where there was a showcase of Black artists, businesses, and performers. There was also a stage where members of the community spoke.

Shamika Mitchell says the park was chosen so people can safely physical distance while still exercising their right to peacefully protest an important issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Community partners have donated masks and hand sanitizer.

"We have masks, sanitizer ... and as well for people that are immune-deficient, they can watch on a livestream," she said. "I want people to leave the event with a little bit more knowledge and understanding, and for my brothers and sisters to feel empowered and heard, but also for all of us to be unified."

With thousands having attended the previous two marches, Stevens and Mitchell are expecting a similar — if not larger — turnout. They hope to send a message to government leaders that Canadians are ready for systemic change.

"United, we stand strong," said Stevens. "I feel hope. I really do feel hope."

A child joins the Freedom March in Vancouver on Friday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)
A Vancouver protester holds a sign bearing the image of George Floyd, who was killed during an arrest by police in Minneapolis last month. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)
Demonstrators hold signs as they march toward Sunset Beach. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)
The march ended at Sunset Beach. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

With files from Gian-Paolo Mendoza

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