'I'm a Black woman first': Pamphinette Buisa's journey from elite athlete to BLM warrior

Instead of preparing for the Olympics in Tokyo as a member of Canada's women's rugby team, Pamphinette Buisa is lending her strength and voice to the Black Lives Matter movement in Victoria, where she lives and works.

Rugby player from Gatineau, Que., was supposed to be getting ready for the Tokyo Olympics right now

Pamphinette Buisa speaks at a Black Lives Matter rally in Victoria on June 7, 2020. Buisa was born and raised in Ottawa before moving to Gatineau, Que., and now lives and trains in the B.C. capital. (Brooke Thorn McGowan)

If COVID-19 hadn't sidelined the 2020 Olympic Games, Pamphinette Buisa of Gatineau, Que., would be preparing to head to Tokyo to complete with Canada's women's rugby team. 

Instead, the 23-year-old is helping organize Black Lives Matter rallies in Victoria, where she now lives and trains. 

Buisa was born and raised in Ottawa before moving to Gatineau at age 10. She played for the Ottawa Irish rugby club team and was recruited to Team Canada as a teenager.

Police brutality isn't new. It was happening before COVID happened. But my capacity to speak out definitely came out when COVID happened.- Pamphinette Buisa

COVID-19 put an end to team practices and left Buisa missing her teammates. 

"That's such a fundamental part of why I play and how I play," Buisa said. 

They lift weights together on Zoom, but it's not the same. "I'm super extroverted, so not being able to sing in the gym and dance around with my teammates … has been really difficult."

Team members commiserated online after learning the Games had been postponed in response to COVID-19. "I literally had to shift the camera away from my face because I was crying the entire time," Buisa recalled.

But something even more fundamental than her love of sport has risen in Buisa, in the time and space that COVID-19 has created, and in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. 

Buisa, left, had hoped to compete with Canada's women's rugby team at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but she says COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd forced her to re-evaluate her identity as a Black woman and as an athlete. (@RugbyCanada/Twitter)

A friend invited her to join in one of the earliest Black Lives Matter marches. When Buisa arrived, it was clear there was organizing to be done.

"What can I do to help?" Buisa remembers asking. Since then, she's evolved into one of the primary organizers of the Black Lives Matter rallies in the British Columbia capital. 

Instead of obsessing about scrums, sides and tries, Buisa was busy lining up legal observers, de-escalation staff, speakers, allies, media, ASL interpreters and COVID-19 co-ordinators, whose job it is to remind protesters to keep two metres apart. 

"COVID changed my life," Buisa said. "It propelled me [and] my proximity to my Blackness, in the way that I tuned into things. Police brutality isn't new. It was happening before COVID happened. But my capacity to speak out definitely came out when COVID happened."

A new perspective

Buisa has come to realize there are forces bigger than her sport. "I just was so focused on training and working and bettering myself for the team, but it was very much rooted in myself," she said.

These last few months have given her a new perspective, far outside her comfort zone in sport. 

"I ... hid behind the maple leaf," Buisa acknowledged. "Detaching myself from other identities … was super scary." 

Now, she's feeling firmly rooted. "I'm a Black woman first," Buisa said. 

'Detaching myself from other identities … was super scary,' said Buisa, seen here at a Black Lives Matter rally in Victoria on June 7, 2020. (Kaitie Keilstra)

This doesn't mean she's turning her back on rugby. "I see myself in one light, as someone who … is really passionate, whether that's giving back to the community or giving my everything to my team, and for this country."

The Canada women's rugby team will now compete in Tokyo 2021, and Buisa hopes to be there.

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