George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25 has sparked a wave of protests in the United States, in Canada, and around the world.
Over the past two weeks, millions of demonstrators have taken to the streets. Coverage in the U.S. has focused largely on the massive displays of support in major cities, but demonstrations have also been held in smaller towns across the country.
The same has been true in Ontario: thousands have grouped, gathered, and marched in such major centres as Ottawa and Toronto to speak out against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. But events have also been held in Guelph, Thunder Bay, Niagara Falls — and the list goes on.
This week, TVO.org will talk to those involved in the movement in cities, towns, and other communities across the province about what they're fighting for — and where Ontario should go from here.
Today: 20-year-old Fatima Mendis of Black Lives Matter Thunder Bay (an independent organization unaffiliated with Black Lives Matter Toronto) and one of the leaders of the city’s first-ever Black Lives Matter demonstration, which was held on June 5 and drew more than 2,000 people.
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TVO.org: Young people played a big part in organizing this rally. Is this the first time you’ve ever organized something like this?
Fatima Mendis: It is the first time, and I’m surprised it got this big. I did not think it was going to be this big. I’m definitely thankful.
TVO.org: Why, despite the pandemic, do you think the deaths of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and others have sparked such a strong reaction from people across North America?
Fatima Mendis: We're definitely understanding of this pandemic, but we chose this time because lots of videos suddenly started going viral. People saw that, and it started affecting mentally, not just physically, people in different cities. As protests are going on, we decided this would be a great time to help raise George Floyd’s voice — and every death that happened because of this racism.
TVO.org: That was something that the speakers talked about: the emotional work of facing racism in Thunder Bay. What is meant by “emotional work”?
Mendis: People say there’s no racism in Thunder Bay, but there’s definitely, 100 per cent, racism going on in Thunder Bay. People won't show it physically, but, mentally, they will stare you down, judge your hair, talk about how dirty you look because of your skin colour — all of that. This is why we have to rectify that. It's not okay. It's important that everybody knows that there is racism in Thunder Bay, not just in the United States. In every city where there are Black people, there’s racism going on.
TVO.org: Have you personally experienced such things?
Mendis: Basically, I’m just explaining what happened to me in high school. I was born in Senegal. I moved here six years ago. It took me three years to make friends. I was the second person in my high school who was Black, so I really looked different from everybody. It was very aggressive on us, mentally and physically. So every time something happened, I would get up, go to the side, read and take my time, then come back.
TVO.org: Is Thunder Bay changing now? Are you still one of the only Black students in class?
Mendis: Every year, there are more Black students coming to university. There are definitely more than there were two years ago. It gives me hope for all those Black people to keep coming, because if there’s more community and there are more people speaking out, that’s how we get heard.
TVO.org: Thunder Bay is well-known for anti-Indigenous racism in the police force. How does that play a role in the way you experience racism and the way you organize around anti-racism?
Mendis: We chose this day to say Black Lives Matter, but we do see Indigenous people struggling, having the same story as us. We invited them to be part of this because their lives matter as well. Even being stared down once a day ruins your whole day. We can’t even imagine how they feel with the risk of being mistaken for someone they’re not because they’re Indigenous. It’s not okay.
TVO.org: What would you like to tell the people of Ontario about how Black people in Thunder Bay experience racism?
Mendis: I need Ontario to understand the way you treat someone, the way to talk to them, the way you look at them — it can really affect a person.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.