LITTLE CURRENT – The names of George Floyd, Chantelle Moore, Rodney Levi, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and many more people of colour, Black and Indigenous people who have recently died in police custody were chanted through Little Current’s streets this past Friday evening during a well-attended Black Lives Matter protest that began at the Manitoulin Welcome Centre.

“Thank you to everyone who has supported this event, whether it be the local businesses that donated supplies, the online supporters who defended this event on Facebook and Instagram, and to all of you who have decided to take a stand … against the injustices and oppression of Black, Indigenous and people of colour,” said Julie Casson. Ms. Casson was one of five young Island women who organized the event and they each spoke at the start.

Co-organizer Eden Beaudin next described the significance of the rally falling on June 19, also known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day—the day the last enslaved Black people were freed in the US. She said as an Indigenous person she can recognize systemic disadvantages that occur in the modern day.

Ayrielle Nodecker, the youngest of the organizers, said the purpose of the event went deeper than the signs or the walk; rather, it was a chance to ponder the history of racism and its existence today.

“We all deserve to be given the same respect. Deep down we are all the same, and we need to be treated that way; I am here today to support that change and I am very happy to have everyone here walking with me,” said Ms. Nodecker.

Co-organizer Alicia Williamson said the well-attended rally in a small community was a testament to the spirit of Islanders and that everyone should advocate for positive change.

“We know that racism doesn’t stop at the swing bridge,” said Ms. Williamson. “It’s amazing seeing how many people across Canada are coming together.”

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes said protests become powerful when they lead to concrete follow-up action. 

“Sadly, there are many who feel threatened by the call for peace, harmony and justice. We see this from provocative people on social media and leaders who are reluctant to admit the depth and spread of discrimination or the harmful policies and practices that allow this to continue,” she said.

A protester asked what the government was doing about policing. Ms. Hughes, an opposition MP, said changes are needed so police will respect everyone’s rights equally and minimize violence in hostile situations.

The line of marchers at this point stretched for nearly half a kilometre as the front group led the way along the Little Current waterfront.

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha spoke next, tossing his speaking notes to the side for an impassioned address. 

He rebuked the province’s cuts to anti-racism initiatives as well as the federal government’s censure of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh for calling a Bloc Québecois MP racist. Mr. Mantha added that as a White person, he felt uncomfortable to have to discuss this topic but that was the point.

“Don’t remain in ignorance. Step out, challenge yourself to ask questions about why you’re bothered by this,” he urged.

Aiyana Louis, a M’Chigeeng resident who has Barbadian and Anishinaabe heritage, said awareness of major global issues is important and described the crowd as part of a global consciousness.

“The first change always starts within ourselves,” said Ms. Louis. “Actions speak louder than words … if we all contribute a little bit, the results can be immaculate.”

She then delivered a powerful performance of Emeli Sandé’s song ‘Read All About It,’ then Valerie Beaudin and Kimberly Debassige performed ‘The Longest Walk Song’ in remembrance of the reclamation of Alcatraz by Indigenous demonstrators, a story shared in the December 11, 2019 edition of this newspaper.

Each sign revealed a unique reason for marching on Friday.

Finally, Lorraine Bebamikawe delivered a prayer and a teaching about how creation is a gift that needs to be both shared and respected.

The group of more than 100 people (nearly universally wearing protective face masks) took a knee for a minute of silence and then advanced down Water Street to Manitowaning Road, up the hill and back along Meredith Street to the start.

Northeast Town crews and members of Redrum Motorcycle Club provided traffic protection at intersections. When the group reached downtown Little Current, several people grabbed chalk and wrote ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the main street.

Notably absent from the march was a police presence. The five organizers had requested that the OPP not directly participate, given the systemic racism in policing which has been widely acknowledged, including by the commissioner of the RCMP. However, officers could be spotted in the area to ensure everyone stayed safe, all the while remaining at a respectful distance and driving off before the march reached their positions.

The demonstrators paused as they approached downtown for the rear marchers to catch up with the lead group. Several young people dashed up to write ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the road downtown, below.

Leading the walk was Espanola’s Andrew Mercer, who had organized a recent rally in his town and had plans for follow-up events.

“It’s very important that we all support each other. All the world is standing together,” he said, adding that his friends from the US have described very different experiences with racism and this was a way to show support for the same issues that exist in Canada.

Marcher Mike Zegil, one of the Manitoulin Secondary School teachers who took part with their families, said he couldn’t “sit on the fence” when seeing all of the challenges in the world, especially considering it was his former students who organized the march.

The organizers thanked the people and organizations who made the rally possible and Ms. Williamson said it was important to keep the momentum going forward.