North

OPINION | Why we are not exempt from racism in the North

Ambe Chenemu gives his perspective on what it's like to be a Black person in the North, and talks about why the Northwest Territories is not exempt from racism.

Ambe Chenemu gives his perspective on what it's like to be a Black man in the North

Ambe Chenemu says we are not exempt from racism here in the North. (Submitted by Ambe Chenemu)

I will never forget that day.

It was in 2015, I had just moved to Yellowknife and went out for dinner after finishing work. I walked up to the bar, ordered a beer, and looked around for a place to sit. There was one seat open next to a white gentleman. 

"Is this seat taken sir?" I asked. 

He turned toward me, gave me a stare and said, "Don't you get it, people like you are not welcome here, please leave." 

The first time I ever encountered racism was in my early 20s after moving to Canada. Growing up back in Cameroon, everyone looked just like me and racial discrimination was never a thing. 

Protests happening across the world, sparked by the gruesome murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer, have once again brought front and centre the conversation surrounding the inequalities and racial discrimination against Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in Canada. 

As I reflect on this, I cannot help but put my own experience as a Black immigrant now living in northern Canada into context.   

I have been told many times to be grateful for being here, or to go back to where I came from. 

I know of many Black immigrants like myself who have felt the need to change their name to more acceptable "white names" in order to "fit in" and or gain meaningful employment. They would also worry about aspects of who they are like skin colour, accent, race, and religion.

Chenemu in a canoe near the Taltson River, N.W.T., in 2013. (Submitted by Ambe Chenemu)

If you are a white northerner and this is coming as a shock to you, then we've got work to do. 

White Canadians often justify racism in Canada by comparing our country to the United States. Some even deny that racism happens in this country at all.

As northerners, we like to think of ourselves as a diverse, tight-knit community, away from all the southern racism. Yet look around you, how many people of colour are employed at your place of work? How many people of colour are in your circle of friends? Have you ever taken the time to educate yourself and your children about Black and Indigenous history and the racial injustices they have faced? This is not a southern problem. We are not exempt from racism here in the North.

Last Tuesday, hundreds gathered in Yellowknife to rally against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. It was the most important march of my life, as we walked down the main street to the RCMP detachment.

Seeing so many young people out there marching gave me so much hope.

To my local law enforcement:

I stood outside the RCMP detachment on Tuesday, addressing you directly, because there are some things I would like you to know.

You took an oath to uphold the law but you have lost my trust and have to earn it back.

I am scared for my life every time I walk down the street or get stopped by you. 

If you see something wrong in the force, don't be afraid to call it out. You are saving a Black life, you are doing the right thing.

Chenemu addressing the crowd during Yellowknife's anti-racism rally in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. (Walter Strong/ CBC)

To my local community and leaders: 

We don't need to look far to see systemic racism in our territory.

I think it is clear that we are not immune.

Just months ago, there was a Nazi flag hanging out of a window above Aurora College in Yellowknife. 

I have watched our Legislative Assembly meet in the past weeks and not once have I heard our leaders mention how they are going to work with law enforcement, local and Indigenous community leaders on identifying and addressing racism and discrimination across our territory. 

What specific actions are you going to take to stamp out racism in our territory? Or are you going to stand by and do nothing?

People gathered, many with Black Lives Matter signs, ahead of the march last Tuesday. (Walter Strong/ CBC)

We can all do better

We have to come together now more than ever to support BIPOC, who cannot be the only ones to continue to speak up and speak out. We can all do better. 

On my walk home from the protest, I was exhausted but my spirit was not broken. 

In that moment, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, D'Andre Campbell, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantel Moore, Colten Boushie, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown and many others ran through my head. To me, they're fallen heroes.

It has been one week and I already have two more names to add to a list I never wanted to make: Rayshard Brooks and Rodney Levi.

I don't want another BIPOC tragedy. I don't want another dead hero. 

My feet are tired and I don't want to ever have to march again.

People taking a knee during the anti-racism rally on last Tuesday, outside of Yellowknife's RCMP detachment, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. (Walter Strong/ CBC )

About the Author

Ambe Chenemu is a planner with the Tłı̨chǫ Government in the Northwest Territories. He holds a bachelor's degree in law and a diploma in natural resources management. He has experience working with local Indigenous governments in the N.W.T. to support strategic planning, plan implementation and Indigenous rights to consultation, self-government and natural resources management.

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