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One year Later: How the Black Lives Matter protest changed Guelph forever

A look at the notable changes that took place in Guelph since the Black Lives Matters protest on June 6, 2020
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Guelph gathers on Carden Street on June 6, 2020. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday file photo

It’s been exactly one year since the streets of Guelph were flooded with thousands of people marching for racial justice in Guelph.

They called to defund the police, they called for accountability and they called the names of lives lost to police brutality around the world. 

A lot of change can take place in a year. But the fact is, a year is not enough to undo decades if not centuries’ worth of systemic racism.

Kween, executive director of the Guelph Black Heritage Society who helped organize the Black Lives Matter protest, said when she stood in front of over 5,000 people on June 6, she was angry, frustrated and heavily grieving. 

But standing there that day, she also felt overwhelmed with joy that the city was celebrating its diversity.

“That was just really outstanding, and a really good place to leave us at the end of the protests because I know for so long, so much of this work is so heavy, and we need a space for us as well to feel great about ourselves. We're so much more than this work of anti-racism and anti-oppression. We all have stories, we all live lives, we all are artists,” she said. 

What happened that day in Guelph ignited a conversation. It got the ball rolling toward change.

People started to look at things differently. Businesses, cities, schools, organizations began to have conversations – uncomfortable conversations – about the reality of racial injustice of BIPOC people.

Following the protest, the Upper Grand District School Board called for the formation of a task force to investigate the School Resource Officer program in schools, which was removed months later due to an overwhelming response of negative experiences from members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities in schools.

The University of Guelph committed to an anti-racism training module for all incoming students and released an action plan to address discrimination for BIPOC after students called for a full anti-oppression course.

The City of Guelph reopened its community plan developed over a year prior to the protest with a renewed equity lens. Part of that was kicking off a local survey to examine residents’ lived experiences of discrimination to make Guelph and Wellington County more welcoming. A new park and trail in the south end were named after local Black veterans who fought during the First World War.

The GBHS launched a #ChangeStartsNow education campaign in collaboration with the city last summer to present educational resources on Black history and culture for the community. It also launched a four-day anti-racism summit early this year. 

A Waterloo teacher launched a Black heritage educational curriculum in collaboration with the Guelph Black Heritage Society focusing on positive aspects of Black life and culture available for teachers to use province-wide. 

In January, Guelph became one of 82 municipalities in Canada to join UNESCO’s Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities which seeks to bring together cities to improve their policies against racism, discrimination, exclusion and intolerance. 

Chief Gordon Cobey said this includes a commitment to provide police services that serve the community so Guelph can be an example for other cities. 

“This is not the type of thing where we're ever going to be done,” said Cobey in an interview about making change. 

“I think this is about constantly learning and growing together and creating a new normal.”

In the police board meeting in May, Cobey said the GPS recognizes that every individual or group has their own unique thoughts, feelings and lived experiences and no one person can represent the experiences of Guelph’s diverse community. 

"We have worked really, really hard to, listen, learn, grow and evolve, so we can understand the needs of our community," said Cobey

"I think from the very beginning the community together created a very aspirational goal that we want to be the community that leads by example and shows other communities what's possible."

In the last year, GPS has held numerous sessions for diverse communities in the region to share their lived experiences and perceptions of police and police interactions. For the first time, they began live-streaming their monthly board meetings on YouTube to ensure transparency, they launched a mandatory in-house diversity training video put together by BIPOC leaders in the community, — that showed an unfiltered view of BIPOC people in the community — and a bias awareness training for all GPS members. 

They also enhanced diversity police college training for new recruits and set a goal to develop an in-person training program by 2022 to enable in-person conversations with members of the community. Public members joined the community policing community, the GPS began meeting with representatives of the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition Group to identify opportunities where they could improve services and even developed a system to track their involvement in public and volunteer events. 

Mayor Cam Guthrie said the city had three main priorities after the protest. To listen to the community to make it more inclusive, to ensure the growth of the city as an employer and to improve engagement and interaction with citizens. 

“I feel like there is a renewed focus or even a new focus on using an equity lens on everything that we do,” said Guthrie. 

Guthrie said in the past year, he himself has had respectful and difficult conversations for change to take place around issues he didn’t know existed. 

He gives the example of traffic issues. He said in the past year, local immigration partners identified areas that have a low engagement rate with city hall when it comes to asking the city for traffic safety measures. He said either those areas don’t know how to engage with city hall or the city is not doing a good responding to traffic concerns in those neighbourhoods. 

“So now we're looking at how can we be better as a city to help with traffic safety through an equity lens to help people engage with city hall, and if there are issues or barriers that are in their way from engaging with us so that we can help them in those areas," he said. 

Guthrie said what makes Guelph stand out is that it has taken a community-led approach rather than relying on city hall or city council to tell its citizens what to do. 

“We have flipped that, and now it's community-led, and at the end of the day the changes that are made from and by the community are only going to happen when something like this is community-led,” said Guthrie.

“My job is to make our city better and better and better every single day. If we can be a city that is a better city when it comes to equity issues, stamping out systemic racism, upholding acceptance and diversity for all individuals, that's the type of city I want to live in,” said Guthrie. 

Now with all these changes in the past year, have we gotten a lot closer to where we need to be? 

Kween says she already feels the passion behind calling for change is dying down. 

“I look at some of the places and the spaces that we're at, and I don't see change, I see a lot of performative action. I don't know if that crowd of 8,000 people, we would ever get again, I think that that was part of just what was happening at the time and it was what was cool,” said Kween.

“For us, it's not what's just cool. It's like our everyday living experience. So we need people to get energized again, feel that momentum again. Stop with complacency and really step up.”

Kween said she’s seen a lot of Black people put in leadership positions by organizations to quickly show they're taking action. 

She said there is no solidarity and Black Lives Matter without support for the entire community. “We have to all work toward racial equity because it's affecting all of our community,” she said. 

Community leader Marva Wisdom, who has been at the forefront of creating change in the UGDSB and the city’s community plan in the past year, said she can see changes in everyday interactions when people ask questions on how to do things right, but the burden should not always fall on the shoulders of the BIPOC community. 

“When we're talking about systems change, we're talking not only about education, we're talking about awareness, and we're talking about action because people have a difficult time understanding what equity is, and why to have the same level playing field still will not work for those who are marginalized and seeking equity because of historical issues,” said Wisdom.

“And so those conversations are ongoing and sometimes it takes action from those who are elected."

She said while some things have to do with regulation and legislation, others have to do with attitude and behaviours and for her, the most significant changes are when organizations complete an introspective examination of themselves to make themselves more equitable.

“I know the city is doing some work now. And I know there are some other organizations that are doing some work. I think it needs to be continued to be at the top of everyone's agenda,” said Wisdom. 

“And my suggestion to people to make really lasting change is if you have staff meetings, start with a conversation about how are we breaking down barriers today? What are some things that we did yesterday that we're proud of? And what are we going to do today to make progress toward a more equitable organization, a more equitable society.”

Now reflecting back on the year, Wisdom says she feels almost the same as she did last June 6 because racial injustice still exists. 

Wisdom recalls a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King where he says we are all wrapped in a single garment of destiny.

“I keep wondering when are we going to understand how interconnected we are as a world?” she asks. Brutal incidents of police brutality in America still take place and it affects us the same she says. 

“Why do others have to make an assumption that because you're not practicing exactly as I am, whether it's your faith, or whether you have a different colour skin or an accent, different hair texture, the person that you love, your abilities. Why does that make you less?”

She said while she doesn't want to just talk about the great things that are happening, she does see a shift, one that she calls the pre-George Floyd and the post-George Floyd conversation.

“People are recognizing that they need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said Wisdom.