Scenes of protests over atrocities experienced by Black people in the United States at the hands of police are etched in the minds of Black Canadians as they watched from a distance, knowing those same injustices are also being experienced on this side of the border.
“When we talk about police violence in this new digital age, we are able to grieve with people down in Oakland, down to New York and B.C. etc. etc. And at the time the seeds were starting to be plated for BLM activity in Toronto,” said Rodney Diverlus, co-founder Black Lives Matter Toronto.
Over the last seven years Black Lives Matter Toronto has grown from a small organization of activists to the massive movement fighting anti-Black racism that we know today. It started in the United States in 2012 following the police involved killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murdering Martin sparking outage and protests in the U.S. As Canadians watched closely, it was in 2014 when Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer that sparked a global response. It was that moment when Black Lives Matter Toronto was born.
“We organized a solidarity vigil outside of the U.S. consolidate in November 2014 and we essentially called out our community to come together to grieve and to cry. And just overnight, the next day, over 3,000 people came,” explained Diverlus. “Outside there, all of us huddled together, chanting ‘Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter,’ over and over again. It was really the seed that began all of this.”
Black Lives Matter Canada is an organization with chapters across the country. It is also a movement actively working to dismantle all forms of anti-Black racism. The organization works to support Black Canadians through several programs and education initiatives such as the WildSeed Centre for Art and Activism, a multi-purpose artist run community.
“I’m so excited to see we shifted from a place of just like ‘give us this, give us this’ to ‘This is what we need,'” said Diverlus.
2020 and Defunding the Police
After six years of organizing and activism, 2020 saw exponential support for the movement across the globe, including Toronto. Thousand took to the streets alongside BLM to protest the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The summer of 2020 also saw activists and their allies demanding the defunding of police and to redirect that money to supports and services for racialized communities.
“We as a society have actually over relied on a carceral system to actually fix a lot of our societal issues,” said Diverlus. “We’re not targeting poverty. We’re actually sending cops just to raid communities. We’re not targeting mental health and homelessness. We’re actually just using the police as a band-aid solution for these broader societal issues that we know need attention.”
Defund the police was a campaign used as a framework for Black Lives Matter to reimagine ways Canadians can deal with issues like police violence, anti-Black racism, homelessness and mental health.
“It’s asking for that to be re-shifted and for us to re-shift our priorities from incarcerating and putting people into prisons that don’t actually work to actually working with communities in thinking what is it that is best for them.”
The idea to defund police isn’t a modern day one. Movements fighting against injustice and anti-Black racism such as Black Lives Matter have been taking place in Toronto for decades.
“Black people have always resisted oppression; Black people have always resisted violence. This is a historic thing,” said Beverly Bain, professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto.
Bain says Canada also has a grim history when it comes to its treatment of Black people. But it was in the 60s and 70s where Toronto began seeing Black people take to the streets protesting violence against their community.
“In the 70’s, following the shooting of Albert Johnson, people from the Caribbean and other Black communities protested this shooting and were at the head of these movements, particularly Black women,” explained Bain.
Bain says similar movements in history saw success when Black people worked with other marginalize communities such as Indigenous communities.
“While focusing on the livability of Black people, we also ensured that we focused on the genocide and continuing killing of Indigenous people at the hands of the state and of police as well as racialized people,” she said. “We see that this is a struggle we all have to be a part of and as Black people we have never engaged in struggle without some kind of coalition building with other allies who are racialized and Indigenous.”
Black Lives Matter 2021 and Beyond
After the movement shook the world in 2020, Diverlus calls this stage life after the storm and the calm after protest. He says this is going to be a big year for BLM across the country.
“What we’re going to see this year is BLM activity happening from coast-to-coast, regular sustained programs, campaigns, initiatives and not just one offs.”
BLM Canada is also working to build off its organization’s policy platform looking into new ideas to help promote Black people and ideas across all sectors of business.
“We’re moving from a place of just talking and fighting but now setting out a vision for where we need to go.”
The nationwide platform will also look at how to better serve the needs of Black Canadians.
This year will also see a continued collaboration with Canada’s Indigenous community. Diverlus says BLM is looking to build partnerships with Indigenous people.
“How do we talk about anti-Black racism from a broader conversation of decolonizing our spaces and in recognizing when Black and Indigenous people have worked together in the past, mainly on the East Coast, we are able to accomplish a lot,” said Diverlus. “It’s going to be a momentous year and what’s even more exciting about that is it’s not going to stop at this year. Whatever opening we create for ourselves are things that will hopefully be of use to our community for generations to come.”