For the last 27 years, February has marked Black History Month in Canada, where Canadians are invited to participate in events and educational opportunities that honour the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities.
The 2022 theme for Black History Month is “February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day,” which focuses on recognizing the daily contributions that Black Canadians make to Canada.
Two well-known advocates for the local BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) community are hoping Barrie residents — and all Canadians — will look beyond this month to continue to learn and educate themselves on the important role Black Canadians have had in building the community in which we live.
“We exist 365 days of the year and our stories matter. Our visibility and our existence matters today. For so long it didn’t matter,” says Shelly Skinner, president and founder of UPlift Black. “It’s not about telling our stories only in one month in the year, it’s recognizing we exist here today and we are part of your community.
"We have contributed so much to what we see today… from building (communities) and how we contributed to society through many different areas of existence. Black history doesn’t just end there," Skinner tells BarrieToday.
Skinner says February should serve as a way to highlight the contributions Black Canadians have made throughout history, but added it's also important to think about what is being done to continue the conversation beyond those 28 days — as well as to discuss what is being done currently.
“(We need) to make sure our spaces aren’t just diverse, because diversity is a fact, but that they are inclusive and equitable. That is really what we are working towards," says Skinner, who arrived in Barrie nearly 10 years ago.
Skinner admits that when she first informed her friends and family she was moving to the area, she was met with concern.
“It had been spoken around our community how racist Barrie was. I came here and I was definitely concerned about that… and I threw myself into the community as much as I could," she says. "But there was a lot of blatant racism at that time.”
That ultimately served as one of the biggest driving forces for why Skinner wanted to become more visible in her new community and why she wanted to begin to bring about change.
Skinner admits trying to create a positive change in the city has been far from an easy road to travel, adding she was close to giving up this past summer leading up to the Black Lives Matter rallies in downtown Barrie.
“At that point, I was very disappointed in the community. I was in a place of just wanting to give up the fight and feeling like we were never going to make any real change,” she says. “After that day, when I saw how the community came together, and with the work that UPlift Black, Making Change, RiseUp Barrie (and other local organizations) have all stepped in with the realization that we all need to do better.
"People said, you know what, it’s time for us to step into our power and that was so important for me because I was exhausted from trying to make this change without community support. It was a lot of gatekeeping and people who didn't want to admit the truth.”
Since that day, however, Skinner admits she has begun to feel the tides change — even just a little.
“I am hopeful and I think there was a time where I almost gave up hope. It just shows (how important it is) to just keep moving forward and recognizing the work you’re doing is important and is making an impact… because eventually it does," she says.
With multiple events scheduled for across the county, Skinner is urging residents to “show up” — both to the February events and beyond.
“It’s not enough to just share a social media post. It’s sharing the post and showing that you’ve registered for the event,” she says. “We put on all these events and the truth is we are really doing this for our allies to inform them. If they don’t even show up to the event, then it’s like why did we do all this work? We know our stories, we know our existence and we know the truth.”
Michele Newton, co-founder and acting chair of Making Change Simcoe County, says while they are partnering with several local organizations this month, including Georgian College and Wasaga Beach Public Library in addition to many corporate clients, Making Change is busy year round working on initiatives to help people learn, or unlearn, and grow.
“The idea is recognizing that the world we are living in right now, while we didn’t build it to be the way it is, we can build a different world going forward by learning about what is foundational: why is there anti-Blackness and anti-Black racism in our world — individually, systemically and institutionally,” Newton tells BarrieToday.
“We all have the opportunity to say we are going to be part of changing that moving forward. To me, that journey is all year long and I love that February gives everyone that chance to be reminded of the importance of it.”
Newton hopes people will take the month and realize not only are there more places they can explore and learn about that celebrate Black history locally, but also to embrace a journey of lifelong learning. Whether it’s taking part in local educational events or doing your own research, Newton says it’s important to know that becoming an ally is a journey that will last a lifetime.
“There’s an unlearning that we all have to take from this society that has raised us and nurtured us in this (way of) thinking. For me, the starting place is in educating yourself,” she says, adding beginning that journey should start as early as possible.
And it also takes humility, Newton says.
“Nobody wanted to be here, in this place. We find ourselves here, with this opportunity to take the reins and… become more aware, more active, and actually do the actions required to start changing this world."
Newton also suggests parents talk to their children, even as young as kids in kindergarten.
"They are going to help change the world because they’re going to grow up knowing the stereotypes they’re surrounded by are false and don’t represent Black people or Black communities," she says. "They are going to learn that diversity is a fact, but inclusion is an act. If you can learn that as an adult or teach it to your children — the earlier the better — we are going to come to a better place.
“That’s where every allyship starts… self-education, reflecting on things that you learned that were wrong or things you may have done that were wrong, and giving yourself the forgiveness that you can change going forward.”