Now Or Never

Dispatch from the Prairies: A Black journalist's perspective on this moment

'This is my city. I have lived here for 20 years. I’ve covered protests before, but I have never seen anything like this.'

'I have lived here for 20 years. I’ve covered protests before, but I have never seen anything like this'

Four thousand people took a knee at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Saskatoon. (Omayra Issa/Radio-Canada)

Contributed by Omayra Issa

Braydon Page took a knee in front of the Saskatoon Police Service headquarters and raised his fist in the air. Almost instantly, 4,000 people behind him followed suit. 

They chanted in unison.

"Black Lives Matter."

This is my city. I have lived here for 20 years. I've covered protests before, but I have never seen anything like this.

Those three words — Black Lives Matter — have become a call to action worldwide. Saskatoon is not immune.

Here, there were protesters of different backgrounds, creeds, races, genders, orientations, ages and communities.

The crowd at the protest kneeled together in unison for eight minutes and forty six seconds. (Omayra Issa/Radio-Canada)

The Saskatchewanians demanded justice for George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black father who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd's neck under his knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

They called out for justice in the U.S., but also pointed to anti-Black racism in Canada and in Saskatchewan: racial profiling by police, daily micro-aggressions, institutional silencing and much more.

The sea of people kneeled for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Time was suspended in downtown Saskatoon. The silence was loud. It was solemn. It felt different.

That's when I knew I was witnessing a singular historic moment.

There are rare moments as a journalist when you realize you are witnessing history. It is both humbling and demanding.​​​- Omayra Issa

I knew I had to rise to the moment and be attentive to its request. I felt its most pressing demand was to listen. This moment is asking all of us to listen to the experiences of Black Canadians and lean into the discomfort of talking about anti-Black racism in Canada.

Canadian media is not exempt. 

I am a Black journalist from Saskatchewan. I have covered race relations and communities of colour in our province for years. The young protesters trusted me with their stories because I am a Black woman. They didn't have to explain the sting of racism to me. I live it every day.

Right now, in Canada and elsewhere, Black journalists are best positioned professionally to provide relevant, meaningful, accurate reporting and analysis of these critical times.

Black prairie histories and futures

Thousands gathered in Regina, Saskatchewan, for a Black Lives Matter protest. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

I have been Black on the Prairies for 20 years. 

The Black Lives Matter rally in Saskatoon was the first time I saw Black youth at the forefront of a local movement.

This is no small feat in the heart of the Prairies. Black people have lived in this part of Canada for more than 100 years, with the first Black pioneers migrating from the U.S. in search of a better life. 

Yet Black bodies, Black histories, Black lives, Black experiences are mostly unaccounted for here.

Black people are hyper-visible here. Ironically, their lives are largely invisible in the larger social fabric.

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have poured into the streets of cities and small towns across Saskatchewan to chant "Black Lives Matter." The Black Lives Matter movement is inserting the Black presence into the public discourse.

Thousands walking together through downtown Saskatoon at the Black Lives Matter rally. (Omayra Issa/Radio-Canada)

I spoke to a Black woman at the Saskatoon protest. I asked her what this moment meant to her. She started crying.

"I feel empowered. I didn't think people cared or people saw me," she said.

Perhaps most significantly, Black people in Saskatchewan are getting to see each other.

The pain is evident. So is the strength.

"Being Black is basically a crime. It is open season on us," said Taiwo Adebogun, holding a sign with the inscription "Am I Next?"

Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to dozens of Black people across the country, including in the Prairie provinces, who say that this moment is ultimately about Black liberation.

"My life is as worthy as anybody else's," said Aleg Rugero.

Through their complex experiences, identities and voices they are inviting us to be present, to expand our minds and hearts in the midst of the discomfort of talking about anti-Black racism in Canada. 

The protesters say there is hope in this moment. Hope for change. Hope for action. 

But hope requires honesty.

Is Canada ready to have an honest dialogue about how to eradicate systemic racism?