Manitoba

Refused service, looked over for a job, profiled in a store: Black Manitobans recount experiences of racism

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the protests that have followed, have sparked conversations about racism black Manitobans have endured in the province.

'It's not just about ... the death of George Floyd. It's about the humanity of everyone,' says Christian Mekoh

Kemlin Nembhard says she and a group of friends were denied service in a Manitoba restaurant about 15 years ago. 'If you have been subject to that sort of behaviour before, you know deep in your gut when something like that's happening,' she says. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Growing up, Kemlin Nembhard was one of just two black kids in her school. 

She remembers elementary school in Winnipeg distinctly.

"People were pretty awful, children were awful.… You know, name-calling, bullying. Stuff like that," she said.

"I would make sure I would get on the bus first because otherwise, I would never be able to find a seat.… People wouldn't let me sit beside them."  

Nembhard, now 50, still reflects on her experiences with racism as a child.

The management consultant has worked in every province across the country but says it was Manitoba where she experienced the most serious overt racism as an adult. 

"The only place I've actually been refused service was in Manitoba in Portage la Prairie, and that was about 15 years ago. So that's pretty recent, I think." 

Nembhard says she was with two white friends getting back from a road trip looking for a place to eat. She says they stopped at a restaurant in the small city west of Winnipeg.

"We walked in and there were a couple tables with people.… There were actually more staff than people actually sitting."

The group of three seated themselves and waited for over an hour to be served before realizing what was happening, she says.

"People were not coming to come in and take our order, but the line cook was in the window looking out staring at us. All his staff were staring at us. Patrons were staring at us."  

Nembhard says she has no doubt they were refused service because of her skin colour. 

"If you have been subject to that sort of behaviour before, you know deep in your gut when something like that's happening." 

Raymond Ngarboui

Raymond Ngarboui is adamant when he says he's fortunate enough to not have experienced racism for most of the time he's lived in Canada. 

But there is one memory that stands out to the Winnipeg man, who came to Canada 14 years ago as a refugee from Cameroon.

When he graduated from Red River College with a diploma in community development, he applied for a position that he was denied. He feels that was not because of his resumé, but because of the colour of his skin. 

Raymond Ngarboui says he's worked to address issues between newcomers and police officers, but there is more work to be done. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"It was obvious that I was a victim of racism," he said Thursday in Winnipeg's Central Park. 

"My profile and everything else fit that position, but I was told that I was not even qualified to be interviewed for that position. However, I had been doing that same work for more than two years before I went to apply." 

Ngarboui has been watching riots and protests that have taken place in recent days after the death of George Floyd, who was pinned down by three police officers in Minneapolis on May 25.

All three of those officers, along with a fourth who was there, have since been fired and charged. Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee onto Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes, has been charged with second-degree murder.

Ngarboui says as a black man in Winnipeg, he's only had positive interactions with the police and has worked with officers to address issues between newcomers and police officers. But he says there is more work that can be done.

"People need to be educated," about racism in Manitoba. "The awareness is the piece that's been missing."

Christian Mekoh

Christian Mekoh just wishes people would stop asking him where he comes from. The co-founder of the Aschenti Cocoa chocolate store says it happens regularly.

"Most of people who see me the first time ask me, 'Where are you coming from? Is that your business?' And I'm, like, 'I'm from Winnipeg.' Winnipeg is home for me."

Christian Mekoh, a Winnipeg business owner, says he regularly is asked where he’s from and has experienced racism while out shopping in the city with his children Edouard, 7, and Maya, 2. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

He says when he first came to Winnipeg from Belgium in 2012, he thought it was simply general curiosity, but he says the question has become a constant nuisance. 

"It's like you have to justify yourself every day." 

He's been having conversations with his son Edouard, 7, about racism in recent days, but it's not the first time the topic has been discussed. 

Mekoh says he has been racially profiled while shopping in Winnipeg stores with his boy, with some employees assuming he doesn't have enough money to be shopping in the store.

Christian Mekoh, a Winnipeg business owner, says he regularly is asked where he’s from and has experienced racism while out shopping in the city with his son. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

"[My son] was like, 'Dad, why is she asking, or is she telling us that we can't buy the products? Is it because we are black? Why is she looking at us like that?'"

He says he decided to share his experiences publicly to add to a growing conversation about racism in 2020. 

"Everyone needs to spread the word," he said.

"The message I want to give people today is we are all human. What's happening in U.S., it's not just about the killing, the death of George Floyd. It's about the humanity of everyone."

About the Author

​Austin Grabish landed his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. This past summer, he was on the ground in northern Manitoba covering the manhunt for B.C. fugitives Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod, which attracted international attention. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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