EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been edited from a previous version to include accurate Barrie police budget numbers.
When people in Barrie talk about racism, a common refrain is that racism doesn’t exist here.
Activists took to the streets on Saturday and aimed to debunk that assumption during a Black Lives Matter protest - the second largest anti-racism protest to take place in the city in two days.
Barrie native Jordan Ford, one of the event organizers, is white; his wife and three children are black.
“For me, it hits a little bit different,” he said. “In smaller cities, especially, is where we see some of the more systemic racism and maybe not-so-blatant racism than you would see in a larger city.
“I think it’s because there’s less multiculturalism. People are scared of the unknown,” Ford said.
Trace Rapos stood up and shared his experience during the protest as a transgender, multiracial man.
“Kids used to call me a zebra, because I was black and white,” he said.
Rapos talked about his experience coming out as transgender to his Jamaican grandmother.
“She already knew I was queer for about 25 years. In 2005 when I came out as trans... she looked at me and she said, ‘If you want to be a man, walk down the street and be a good man. The only thing I have worry about is violence coming toward you now that you’re going to be a black, racialized man,’” he said.
“She was more concerned about my safety, than my sexuality," said Rapos. "When people try to say that black, queer and trans communities are separate, they’re not. It’s my life, and I know I’m not the only one."
Olivia Brewster spoke about her experiences growing up in Barrie, spending time living in the U.S., her family’s choice to move back to Canada and her worries as a mother.
“The other day my cousin was on Facebook Live while protesting and the police pepper-sprayed him in the f****** face,” she said. “What was he doing wrong? If that’s what you’re saying to yourself right now, you’re part of the problem and you’re not welcome here.”
Brewster talked about her experiences going to elementary and high school in Barrie.
“I got, ‘You’re not THAT black,’ or ‘Sorry, my parents don’t want you at my birthday party this year,’” she said, acknowledging that some of the people she knew when she was in school were in the crowd at the protest. “To all the white kids that spent all those years doing that to me: 'Welcome. I’m so glad you’re here. You’ve grown up.'”
Brewster said when she got pregnant, she and her boyfriend had a moment of panic as they lived in California at the time.
“What were we doing in the U.S., about to have a Mexican-Black baby in White America?” she said. “I spent my entire pregnancy worried my child was going to be killed by police. I was pulled over 37 times in my first year living in Santa Cruz. We decided we were no longer safe there.”
“I can’t fight against racists alone anymore because I’ve been doing it since I was four and I’m f****** tired,” she said.
Maryse-Soleil De Montbrun, who identifies as non-binary, said they attended on behalf of black and queer youth.
“Being black, I can almost guarantee you all of us have had an experience that we think about when the term racism comes up,” they said. “This could be being called the n-word for the first time, or being profiled for the first time. Or something much smaller and sneakier like being touched on the head or being compared to a dog.
“You love the hair on our heads to the point where it’s mimicked with straws or the styles we use to keep (our hair) safe, but call it unfitting for the workplace or ‘ghetto,’” they said. “You love wearing native headdresses... because it’s cute, but turn a blind eye when an Indigenous woman goes missing.”
“You get tanned until you’re darker than us but then reap the benefits of white privilege while keeping the esthetic of being black,” said De Montbrun.
Sierra (Nev) Akers spoke about her experiences growing up biracial in Barrie.
“I went to elementary school and high school in Barrie, unfortunately,” she said. “I want to end that sentence with ‘unfortunately’ because, it f****** sucked.”
Akers said she attended St. Marguerite D'Youville Elementary School, and St. Joan of Arc Catholic High School. She said she was bullied for her hair to the point where she felt she needed to straighten it to fit in. She said she made friends with another girl in her grade who was also biracial, who was also present at the protest.
“We’ve been friends for 14 years, and we have endured so much bull****,” she said. “In high school, people would say, ‘Oh, you look funny.’ I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m mixed.’”
“Once someone said, ‘So that means you get to say the n-word, right?’ Why do you all want to say that word so badly? You know the pain behind that word, right?”
She also described the time a boy at her school asked her to sleep over at his house, and when she said no, he was angry.
“He said, ‘Whatever, n-word,’ with a hard -e-r. He was trying to make me feel some type of way,” said Aker. “I went through high school hearing white kids say it all the time.”
Jennifer Kaplinski shared her experiences being a mother, as well as adopting a Black son.
Kaplinski is white. When she was 17, she said she got pregnant by her boyfriend, who was Guyanese.
“I was living in Oshawa. Across the street lived a racist family and their friends would come over. Constantly we heard the word paki, or the n-word. We heard many racial slurs,” she said.
“This was the first time I really understood true racism. I was jumped because they wanted me to miscarry my daughter,” said Kaplinski, her voice breaking with emotion. “I hope you’re listening. The racism doesn’t start just when they’re born. We have to unite. This has to be changed today.”
Kaplinski said when she went through the process to adopt her son, she asked Children’s Aid who was the hardest to adopt out. She presumed the answer would be disabled children, as she thought not everyone would have the patience and capacity to handle a child with a disability.
She said she was shocked to find out it was Black boys.
“Millions of women want babies, but they won’t take a Black little boy,” she said. “My son is amazing, just so you guys know.”
Terrell Parris spoke near the end of the protest.
Parris said he was a friend of Orlando Brown who died while in Barrie Police custody in June 2018 after officers used a conducted energy weapon during his arrest.
While the SIU investigated and determined Brown’s cause of death was the result of a blocked airway after he swallowed bags of narcotics, video footage of him being Tasered multiple times during his arrest went viral shortly after the incident.
“The day (of his arrest) he was supposed to be with me in the studio. I had to work, so I couldn’t be with him,” said Parris.
“To watch that man get Tased in the street, and nobody did sh**!” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “A bunch of people stood around and wanted to post (on social media) about it, like it was a trending thing. I’m sick of seeing this sh** on the news!”
“Do you think I want my son to grow up in a world where he has to be terrified because of his f****** skin colour?” he said, while his 10-year-old son T.J. stood next to him, tears streaming down his face.
Shak Edwards, master of ceremonies for the protest and founder of Shaksworld, a local non-profit, told a story of racism she experienced in school when she was in Grade 3.
Edwards said students from her class had been tobogganing down a hill when a teacher told students they needed to stop for the day.
“About four of us didn’t listen, and we continued to go down this hill,” she said. “My teacher put all four of us on the wall for the rest of lunchtime, and allowed us, one-by-one, to go back to play. I, on the other hand, stood on the wall for the remainder of lunchtime. I got frostbite so badly on my ears, I had to be taken to hospital.”
When Edwards’ mother went to school the next day to ask why this happened, she was appalled by how she was treated.
“They called her an angry black lady, and told her to calm down,” said Edwards. “Nothing happened. I don’t think people realize how hard it is for black people to just use their voice without being taken aggressively.”
At the end of the protest, Edwards pointed to tangible change that had occurred this week across the city, including Mayor Jeff Lehman lending his support to the cause by participating in Thursday’s protest and Coun. Keenan Aylwin releasing police budget information.
“It’s not enough to just say, ‘We’re listening’ and denounce racism, although that is important,” said Aylwin in an interview with BarrieToday. “We need to look at some of the systemic issues our community is facing.”
Aylwin said the Barrie police budget is 20 per cent ($56 million) of the city’s entire $362-million budget. That, he said, is almost three times more than the city spends on long-term care, social housing, and paramedic services combined.
“We need to have a frank conversation about what it will take to shift our priorities to fund social services – which prevent crime – rather than spending an increasing amount of money each year on reactive policing,” he said.
Aylwin said he sent a letter on Friday to the Barrie Police Services Board. As a first step, he has requested, as part of the 2021 budget process, that they take a hard look at their budget and find ways to reduce spending and re-allocate the money toward front-line social services.
The protest ended with Edwards praising the reaction of Aylwin and Lehman as first steps.
“Hello, Barrie. Welcome to the revolution,” she said.