By Neil Armstrong
|Photo credit: Nicole Brumley Kiké Roach is the Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University|
The event “Looking Back, Moving Forward” featuring Dr. Akua Benjamin and four panelists she invited to participate – Angela Robertson, Notisha Massaquoi, Anthony Morgan and Remi Warner – was the result of efforts by Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, Kiké Roach, to get the recently retired professor to talk about her long storied history of activism.
Speaking at the start of the discussion on October 31 in Oakham House at Ryerson University, Roach, organizer of the Social Justice Week, noted that Dr. Benjamin taught at the university for 30 years in an institution where challenges for Black people exist. She said Benjamin did not come to Ryerson in the late 80s without a struggle. People had to protest for her to become a professor and remain a professor at the university.
Dr. Benjamin said the evening was a dialogue with other voices who have worked in the community for many years.
“I was here because of my community. Students fought for this and I am supported by my community,” said the academic and social activist who this month (November) marks her 50th year living in Canada. She emigrated from Trinidad in 1969 and was fully engaged in the civil rights activism in Toronto when she arrived.
A leader within the groundbreaking Black Action Defense Committee, Benjamin has been central to resistance movements challenging anti-Black racism in Canadian policies, practices and institutions.
Committed to building coalitions to agitate for systemic change, she has also held leadership roles within the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the Congress of Black Women, as well as the Organization of Parents of Black Children.
Dr. Benjamin was the first Black director at Ryerson University, and has played an essential role in cultivating Ryerson’s School of Social Work anti-oppressive, social justice and social transformation lens.
The panelists shared their strategies, tactics and modes of resistance to support the disruption of anti-Black racism in Canada. The aim of the event was to encourage, support, and sustain the work of activists, and community members as they advocate for social justice.
Reflecting on the history of the Black community in the city, Dr. Benjamin said the community came from many nation states and intersected in various institutions. There were Caribbean Blacks, Continental Blacks, Blacks from Nova Scotia, and more. She noted that there were organizations that helped the Black community to settle such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, soccer clubs, recreational facilities, and the Negro Citizenship Club.
|Photo credit: Nicole Brumley Dr. Akua Benjamin, retired director of the School of Social Work at Ryerson University|
The 1960s contributed to changes to Canada’s Immigration Act and there were Black institutions such as the groundbreaking community newspaper, Contrast, the Black Education Project, Harriet Tubman Organization, which all constituted for Benjamin the concept of resistance. There were struggles against colonialism, the anti-apartheid struggle and solidarity with the struggles of Black people in Nova Scotia.
“What is this thing called resistance? Resistance is in our DNA. We survived because of resistance,” said Dr. Benjamin who also mentioned other organizations such as the Black Action Defense Committee and the Universal African Improvement Association (UAIA).
She highlighted the contributions of Bromley Armstrong, Margaret Gittens, Charles Roach, Dudley Laws, Marlene Green and others.
Benjamin said Laws loved saying,“Out of differences we are one people,” which meant “out of those struggles we welded ourselves into one body.”
Each panelist was asked to address the questions: How can we really move forward? Where are we? Each started their presentations with brief tributes to Dr. Benjamin.
Massaquoi recently retired after serving for 21 years as the executive director of Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, a community health centre that provides primary healthcare to Black women and women of colour from the Caribbean, African, Latin American and South Asian communities in Toronto.
She said Black women had to fight for its existence and staff had to barricade themselves in the office for one week to get funding for the organization from the government.
The former executive director noted that WHIWH offers several programs for Black women, addressing mental health, HIV and other health concerns.
Massaquoi said WHIWH has had to fight steadfastly regardless of which political party is in power. On the impact of anti-Black racism on the health of Black communities, she said it is the driver for every health disparity that is being faced in the community.
|Photo credit: Nicole Brumley Seated with Dr. Akua Benjamin from left to right are the panelists: Remi Warner, Angela Robertson, Anthony Morgan and Notisha Massaquoi with friends|
Morgan, training and development consultant of the Confronting Anti-Black Racism (CABR) Unit at the City of Toronto, said the Unit is a permanent office at the City and came out of decades of resistance and activism.
“It is a continuation of the resistance of Black communities, it is not a culmination,” he said, noting that in May 2018 the CABR Unit got its staff but the catalyst for it was March 2016 when Black Lives Matter – Toronto occupied the headquarters of the Toronto Police Service for two weeks.
He said the City realized that this was not typical and that something else must be happening to cause it. Morgan referenced the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations of 1992 which mentioned that Black youth are displaced, misunderstood and forgotten.
The Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism came out of 41 years’ worth of research and recommendations about addressing anti-Black racism in Toronto. These were presented to Black communities in the city to identify the priorities. Out of that process came 22 recommendations and 80 actions.
Morgan said the CABR Unit is guided in its work by the Partnership and Accountability Circle which keeps it accountable to the community.
In her presentation, Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, chose to call names of people and places that played pivotal roles in the development of the Black community.
She recognized Black activists such as Fran Endicott, Sherona Hall, Vera Cudjoe, Eva Smith, Ayanna Black, Charles Roach, Hetty Roach, Gwen and Lenny Johnston.
“These are folks that have been anchors of our community and without them many of us would not be here,” Robertson said.
She also spoke about places like Third World Books, “because I think that when we think about looking back and looking forward we need to think about place. We need to think about place, we need to think about safe spaces that allow us to talk about our liberation. We need to think about spaces that are not spaces that are infiltrated spaces where we can, in fact, plan our liberation and Third World Books was one of such places.”
Robertson acknowledged Akilah and Dari Meade who were in the room and referenced Wong’s restaurant.
“Wong’s restaurant for those who may not know was a small Caribbean Chinese restaurant north of Bathurst station, just south of Third World Books so when you went to Third World and you buy your books and you had an argument with Lenny and Gwen, more so Lenny, then you would retreat to Wong’s restaurant for some curried chicken, rice and peas, some red peas soup, some fried rice and some fried chicken and other delectable delights. But it was always a place of congregation so it was more than a restaurant. It was a place of congregation and community where you got to see Dari, you got to see Akilah, you got to see Akua, you got to see a whole host of other folks who may have just finished a march or a rally or a demonstration but somehow we all found place and a table at Wong’s restaurant.
“I say those spaces and name those things because those are some of the intangibles that are important in our movement building, because the work that is needed and the work that’s required because of the prevalence and the persistence of anti-Black racism is punishing. It’s punishing; it can take joy out of everyday living and as Black people we need to find spaces where we put back joy in our lives,” she said.
Roberston also mentioned Margaret Gittens and others who were central in crafting the Stephen Lewis Report.
She referenced books such as Dionne Brand’s book “Thirsty” which she described as “an anchoring about the killing of Albert Johnson and that talks about the very presence and prevalence of racist police violence and its impact on our lives.”
Robertson also alluded to Dionne Brand and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta’s book “Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots: Speaking of Racism” which came out of the history of the Black Education Project.
There is also Enid Lee’s “Letters to Marcia: A Teacher’s Guide to Anti-Racist Education.”
She said the project of this moment is “the continuing project of our liberation in the face of white supremacy, in the face of anti-Black racism.”
Robertson feels that it is always important when Black people come together in Canada for them to talk about the alliance that they must have with Indigenous people of this land. She said governments have consistently sought to juxtapose “us and our liberation against indigenous people's subjugation.”
As someone whose work in grounded in women, feminist and Black queer organizing, she said, “The work that we do as Black folks for our liberation in the past looking to the future must bring an intersectional analysis. We cannot afford as Black people not to do that, that’s a luxury that I don’t think we can afford because there is really no liberation in liberating some Black people and leaving other Black people facing injustice.”
She said the movement must be one for change, not one for self-aggrandizement, “not a movement for our mobility, not a movement for ego but a movement that seeks to move us as a community, as a people, towards this place of liberation.”
Speaking of this current moment, what she calls the “Trudeau Blackface moment,” Robertson asked those in attendance to move beyond his apology to “what is the accountability for delivering on real and substantive changes to address the anti-Black racism that is here in this society, in this community. This is not a moment where we need to relax and not continue to push and name the presence and the prevalence and the perniciousness of anti-Black racism. In fact, this is a moment when we need to lean in even more.”
Remi Warner, senior manager of the Human Rights Office at Toronto District School Board, spoke about his work and reorienting the office to serve the students and for it not to be seen as an entity within human resources.
He was able to reorient it to have greater systemic focus and a broader conception of human rights that does not place all of the onus on individuals after they’ve been discriminated against to come forward to press for their rights.
“We’re contesting the idea of human rights within the TDSB in such a way that has us responding to marginalized and Black and other students who are feeling the brunt and who are not the ones who come knocking on our door,” he said.
The 9th Social Justice Week at Ryerson University from October 28 to November 1 “asks us to examine, imagine, and ‘cook up’ what we need to implement progressive changes in our communities today.”
This year’s multidisciplinary week of events brought together students, academics, scientists, artists, writers, community organizers, and the public to reflect on “their connection to the Earth and each other, to the food that nourishes us, to the injustices that divide us, and to the changes we need to make collectively for a better world where everyone has a seat at the table.”
As part of an effort to break down barriers, this year’s Social Justice Week hopes to foster new networks of collaboration, innovation, and recipes for change, notes the website of the Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.