Black representation on P.E.I. focus of annual Black History Month panel
'It just really means just being you, being motivated, being able to represent your culture'
Members of P.E.I.'s Black community gathered Thursday night at an annual Black History Month panel discussion to discuss the power and importance of representation.
The discussion focused on the importance of influential Black Islanders — and how that representation helps other Black Islanders become motivated by seeing people who look like them in prominent roles.
"We need to have more representation," said Danté Bazard, P.E.I.'s first Black human rights commissioner and one of the panelists.
"We are qualified individuals who are out there who are able to do this work. But we need to be given the opportunity, we need persons in the hiring positions to recognize they have unconscious bias."
The panel, held at Charlottetown's Confederation Centre of the Arts, was hosted by The Black Cultural Society of P.E.I. and featured Black Islanders who were the first or only Black person represented in their roles on the Island.
Bazard said part of the reason he had the confidence to see himself working with the Human Rights Commission was because he saw his mother work in law and politics in the Bahamas.
However, being the first Black person in his role comes with added pressure.
"You have to present yourself in a way that you represent your whole race, your whole community. They see that. And they get a lot of encouragement from that."
Reequal Smith, who runs Oshun Dance Studios, was also part of the panel.
"Black representation means to me, it just really means just being you, being motivated, being able to represent your culture to your fullest," she said.
Growing up in the Bahamas, she said she had "awesome dance instructors" who inspired her because they looked like her.
"I always told myself, 'That's going to be me,'" she said.
"I had as much representation around me to be where I am today and I am truly grateful for that," she said.
Smith hopes seeing her run a dance studio will motivate other Black women to follow their dreams.
"One day I'm hoping that, you know, one day I can have Black dancers reach out to me and say they want to be part of my company."
Charlottetown Police officer Tim Keizer was also part of the panel, and talked about how another Black officer played a major role when he first joined the force.
"I worked with an officer named Phil Claybourne, and I believe Phil was the first Black officer with the Charlottetown Police Service," he said.
Claybourne told Keizer about his experience policing in the city while Black and some of the language which was used against him in the past, he said.
"He very much mentored me and told me, 'You know, these are some of the things that are probably going to happen to you as your role as a police officer here in Charlottetown,'" he said.
Keizer hopes to provide support and mentorship like that for other Black Islanders. He said growing up on P.E.I. he would often be the only Black student in a classroom.
Keizer was the first police officer to be stationed in an Island school.
"Quite often I would have the opportunity to interact with other students of colour," he said. "When conflicts occurred, lots of times ... I would be contacted. And you know I felt that it was a positive for them to be speaking with me because, you know, they felt I could relate to some of the situations that they were going through."
The panel was moderated by Daniel Ohaegbu, a board member of the Black Cultural Society of P.E.I. and executive director of the Atlantic Student Development Alliance.
Tamara Steele, the society's executive director, was also a panelist.
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.