Black community leaders speak out about intimidation, harassment in Waterloo region

Activists in Waterloo region say it's not uncommon for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour to feel targeted and harassed after speaking out.

Incidents underline need for action on anti-racism, leaders say

Ciann Wilson is an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and a member of the African Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

A local academic is speaking out after her car was broken into, which she says may have been an act of intimidation intended to discourage her advocacy work. 

Ciann Wilson, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, believes she isn't the only Black leader in Waterloo region who has been targeted.

Wilson said that earlier this month she awoke to find her car had been rummaged through. Personal documents, papers and mail were left all over her vehicle, though nothing appeared to have been stolen, she said. 

Wilson said after she posted about the experience on Twitter, other vocal BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) leaders shared similar experiences with her — and said the incidents have left them worried about their safety. 

Wilson said she did not report the incident to police. She said that racialized communities do not always feel safe reporting incidents to police.

In an interview with CBC News in June, Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) Chief Bryan Larkin said he is "disheartened and concerned" that some people don't feel safe to contact police.

"I want to acknowledge that and recognize that. I am listening," he said. 

Larkin added in that interview that the police service launched an equity and inclusion diversity plan in March, which he said will act as a roadmap for the service going forward.

Others share experience 

Wilson is a member of the African, Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region. She says she believes the incident could be tied to her participation in the movement to defund police, although there's no evidence to link the break-in to that. When contacted by CBC, WRPS noted other cases of car break-ins in Waterloo earlier this month and recommended people use the online reporting form if they find their vehicle has been burglarized. 

Some of the people who replied to Wilson's tweet about the incident mentioned they feel like they have been watched, followed, and have noticed strangers loitering around their homes. 

One tweet mentioned bags of urine being thrown into a family's backyard.

CBC News reached out to several of the people who shared their experiences on social media. All declined to comment on the record, citing concerns about their personal safety and the safety of their families. 

In a statement responding to the social media posts, police said the details were "very concerning."

"We find the details to be disturbing and unacceptable to both our service and the entire community," the statement said. 

"We will be reaching out to the authors of the posts to encourage them to report the incidents if they have not already done so."

Actions aim to silence, expert says

Frankie Condon teaches race and class at the University of Waterloo and has closely followed Wilson's thread on social media. She says what she's seen in the tweets is not unlike what she's seen in her research on racism and white supremacist groups. 

Condon says the actions described in the tweets align with ways white supremacist groups try to scare and silence members of the BIPOC community. 

Selam Debs owns a yoga studio in Waterloo and is also an activist and speaker. (Selam Debs/Facebook)

"I think the hope underneath these actions and invasion of people's property and space and threatening behaviours are attempts to make people of colour and Indigenous people scared of speaking out."

"Twitter gives them a place to share these experiences with one another," she said.

Wilson's experience was no surprise to Selam Debs, who is an anti-racism educator and advocate in the region.

"We understand fundamentally that our wellbeing is at risk when we do this work," said Debs, who helped organize the K-W Black Lives Matter march in June.

"Since I started speaking out more, I have thought about the safety of myself and my son and I think about that every day," she said.

'Leadership has to step up'

Debs said all levels of government, and public institutions, need to rally behind the work grassroots BIPOC advocacy organizations are doing. Better policies and laws are needed to protect people, she said.

Marjorie Knight echoed those calls to action. Knight was a past candidate for the provincial New Democratic Party in Cambridge, and told CBC News she faced a lot of racism on the campaign trail.

"We were going door-to-door and I would have people call the police on me. That I'm somehow casing houses or trying to break in or there's a suspicious person in the neighbourhood, that kind of thing," she said.

"The only way to deal with that was that I had to go with somebody who was white."

Knight said it's time to stop talking about racism, through town halls and public consultations, and to start taking action to end it. 

"Until those who are responsible for policy and legislation truly become engaged, until they intentionally make change, we're going to [continue] with this kind of situation," said Knight. 

"There is no absolutely no doubt about this. Leadership has to step up."

Marjorie Knight was an NDP candidate for Cambridge riding in 2018. (Peggy Lam/CBC)

Regional Chair Karen Redman, who also sits on the police services board, said the region and the board are working with members of the BIPOC community. 

"All of these consultations are with the intent of action, so this isn't talking for the sake of talking," she said.

The region released a summary resulting from an anti-racism town hall held in July, and a dedicated working group will be formed to work with regional council to address systemic racism, Redman said. 

An application page for people wishing to join the working group was posted on the Engage Region of Waterloo website on Monday.

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.



  • This story has been edited from the original version published. Allegations and assertions that could not be substantiated by CBC have been removed or modified. Quotes unrelated to the incidents mentioned have been removed. The CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices document can be seen here:
    Sep 24, 2020 5:45 PM ET