British Columbia

After 2020's racial reckoning, Black activists urge Canadians to keep conversation going

Members of B.C.'s Black community say support for dismantling systemic racism isn't as visible as it was during the late spring and summer of 2020, highlighting the need for continual learning and an open conversation.

Activists call for open conversations about race as pandemic threatens to stall movement for more equality

Comedian Ola Dada says a young woman repeatedly called him the N-word recently after he asked the group she was with to stop throwing firecrackers at his car. He says it's a sign of how much more work needs to be done to address racism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In late November, comedian Ola Dada and his girlfriend were visiting a family member at a hotel in Vancouver. While outside, they noticed a group of young people throwing firecrackers from one of the hotel balconies.

Dada says they were hitting his car, so he ran over to say something. The reaction he got from one of the hotel guests, a young woman, shocked him. 

"All I said was, 'Stop throwing firecrackers at my car,' and then the immediate response was, 'Get away, N-bomb, N-bomb, N-bomb, you can't do anything N-bomb,'" said Dada.

The 25-year-old was in disbelief. Not only because of the "racist confidence" displayed by the young woman, but the fact that it was 2020 — a year when thousands of people marched in streets around the world, including in Vancouver, to show that Black lives matter.

"It just goes to show the school system has a long way to go in terms of educating younger kids on how serious saying those words can be. It was very jarring," said Dada.

Crowds gather at Sunset Beach Park in Vancouver after marching against racism on Juneteenth, the date that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States more than 150 years ago. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Despite the racial reckoning that made headlines in 2020, those who organized rallies throughout the late spring and summer say support for the movement isn't as visible now, highlighting the need to keep the conversation going.

"You're not really hearing a lot about it these days. No one's talking about it because it's not trending," said Juneteenth and Emancipation Day rally organizer Nova Stevens.

Pandemic hindering progress

Stevens is hopeful things will improve for Black people, but fears the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to slow progress from being made.

It's hard to hold spaces for open conversations about race with ongoing restrictions on gatherings, she said.

Juneteeth and Emancipation Day rally organizer Nova Stevens, pictured speaking at a rally in Vancouver in June 2020, says there need to be more open conversations about race. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan's Alley Society — a non-profit organization that works to highlight and preserve Black history in Vancouver and B.C. — said the Black community was working on overdrive in 2020. Even though it was tiring, she noticed important changes, including non-Black Canadians finally standing with the Black community.

"There's been an acknowledgement of systemic racism and this acknowledgement is huge," said Francis. 

"This has been a long time coming."

Francis said there have been many commitments made to dismantle systemic racism in B.C., such as plans to embed Black history into the education system and a push to start collecting disaggregated race-based health data to better understand racial inequity in the health-care system.

But in 2021, she said there needs to be more action. 

'Continual learning' needed

Francis encourages everyone to look around and ask themselves whether they see racialized people in positions of power — and if not, why not?

"You must do something to change it. You have to become anti-racist. It's not sufficient to just sit and wait," Francis said. 

"I think what needs to happen now is to move away from this idea that we are at the periphery of the society and others get to make these decisions for us, to moving us to the centre, to making sure that we're leading the way." 

June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan's Alley Society, says Black people need to be moved to the centre of race conversations in order to lead the way. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Having these open conversations about race is something Stevens is pushing for, too.

"I think racism needs to not be a taboo. People are afraid to discuss the topic of race — like, if you talk about it that means you're racist all of a sudden. It's OK to have open conversations," said Stevens. 

But Dada said understanding the topic of race will take time and that there isn't just one solution.

"It's not something where we can scream Black Lives Matter in the summer, and by the time winter rolls around everyone forgets that this is still a thing," he said. 

"What I want people to take from this is it's a continual learning process. It's going to take a while to debunk a lot of stereotypes."

Protesters take part in a march organized by Not Another Black Life, in Toronto, on Aug. 29, part of a Canada-wide series of demonstrations calling for the defunding of police services across the country. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.