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LETTER: More than lip-service needed to combat racism, reader says

"This is not a political issue, it is just about the most fundamental human right one can imagine," Andrew Combes writes after attending Saturday's anti-racism protest in Midland. Combes wonders why other people he knows weren't there.
2020-06-21 jp
Protesters took the streets on Saturday for the Georgian Bay Black Lives Matter March, which began in Little Lake Park. Josée Philips photo

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Where were you? 

Saturday was notable for me. In my entire life, I had until now taken part in just one demonstration or rally for a cause, now it is two.

Midland Today reported (Friday) that there was to be an anti-racism rally and march commencing in Little Lake Park starting at 5pm. My initial impression was that Midland was a curious choice of location for an event supporting the end of racism, a small, nearly entirely white town set in farming and cottage country. Who would attend? I was determined to go and find out.

Little Lake Park is one of the jewels of Midland, a well-tended oasis set around a small lake with leafy oaks providing the shade sought by families for their picnics. A beach at the lake’s edge provides an easy entry to the lake itself and the overall ambience during the warm months is of a family summer spot complete with the usual diner serving ice cream and fried everything else.

There is a band platform and that was billed as the gathering spot for the rally. I parked and walked the last few hundred yards, keenly aware that I was probably three to five times the age of the others walking the same path. Many in small groups, nearly all wearing masks and a goodly number carrying their banners and placards. I took my place on the small grassy rise in front of the stage, among what I estimated to be around 300 attendees and waited for the speeches. Well done Steve of Johnstone’s Music Land for loaning a good PA system for the occasion.

The event had been organized by Emily Duckett and Amani Chabikuli, both of them ex- students of St Theresa’s Catholic High School. Young, black, articulate, passionate and extremely personable.

They had a cadre of volunteers all smartly attired in red shirts that moved among the crowd distributing bottled water; masks and hand sanitizer were available. Hats off to the local businesses that had supported this enterprising group that also had representation from First Nations.

The speeches started and immediately it was clear that this had been well organized. I have run many public events myself and have an eye for these things. So I appreciated the short intervals between speakers, the fact that everyone knew exactly where they fitted in the roster and had clearly been coached on correct use of a microphone. The small stuff does count.

The speeches were startling, concise, on point and in most cases absolutely heartrending. Until you have seen a brave 17-year-old girl break down in front of several hundred onlookers while recounting her experiences, it is hard to comprehend just how these very ordinary people have suffered at the hand of their fellow citizens.

I think all had been called by the ‘N word’ at some point in their young lives - some at a very early age. I had no conception that could be the case. One speaker after another resonated with sharp and personal observations of their own experiences, their own difficulties - from having to head to the big city for hair products to seeing career advancements being handed to other less qualified, but white candidates. We all know or believe it happens, listening to the young speakers made me more fiercely committed than ever before that this needs to stop. It needs to stop now.

So you are, I am sure, comfortable in the knowledge that you are not racist? Never ever and would not condone such a thing? You smile and greet people of colour the same way you would greet anyone else? And you tell your family and friends just that, you could never be accused of racism? Then I have a question for you, where were you yesterday?

I know a lot of people in this town and the surrounding area. It is generally impossible for me to visit Midland and not bump into a few people I know. Yet with 300 or so at the rally I saw not one familiar face.

Maybe you did not know it was happening. Maybe you feel that because you vote a certain way or pay lip-service to a progressive ideal that is enough. Maybe you have engaged in sufficient virtue signalling to give you a free pass? May I suggest it is time to stop feeling comfortable, time to listen and really understand that even here in our bucolic countryside there is indeed racism, and it is alive and well.

Unless we all as a society take a zero tolerance approach to this ugliness it will continue and by doing so hurt and demean and undermine the very people to whom you make a particular effort to be so polite. You need to do more. 

This is not a political issue, it is just about the most fundamental human right one can imagine. We are all created equal and should all be treated as equals. Nothing less will do.

Andrew Combes

Tiny Township