On a summer evening, as Alberta began to open up after months of COVID-19 shutdown, a masked crowd gathered (at socially distanced intervals) on a Camrose soccer field.
Four police officers on bikes patrolled the perimeter. Volunteers handed out masks and ranged around the gathering, prepared to de-escalate any disruptions.
It could have unfolded like many protests happening across the continent; threats had been made against the organizer of the event. But everyone attending the Camrose Against Racism Rally on June 26 had come to listen.
The event came about because a young woman from Camrose named Angie Rabbit saw what had happened to George Floyd, and decided to talk about it on Facebook:
“I am a part of this fight as a Native woman. I am coloured. I am not filth. I am not a waste of time. I am not a menace to society. I stand for Black Lives Matter. I stand for Indian solidarity. We fight the same battle.”
She didn’t expect the response she got. While discussion was at times heated, and included the aforementioned threats to her safety, she was surprised at the uprising of support and solidarity from people wanting to take action against racial discrimination in their community.
In just a few days, the event came together. Volunteers signed up to help. Drummers accepted an invitation to perform. A sound system and microphone materialized. On the day, Rabbit, supported by her dog, Meatball, braved her fear of public speaking and welcomed over two hundred people to the rally.
She started by talking about both positive and negative experiences with law enforcement. There were kind RCMP officers who supported her through two major car accidents, but she has been pulled over in Camrose multiple times for a “random licence check” by an officer who asks her if she owns her van. She now carries her ownership papers with her.
“There are a lot of people in this crowd that probably get treated different and it’s not fair, so I’m here to address that. I’m here and I’m calling on each of you for equality for all of us, for every person of colour, for everyone that’s here. We need to make changes, and it starts at home, and it starts with your neighbour. You’ve just got to wake up, and you’ve got to choose to be nice, and you’ve got to choose to be kind. We have to make that change within us, just show the world that we deserve it.”
Newo Global Energy’s founder, Rajan Rathnavalu, spoke next, telling the crowd he came to Camrose at age six in 1980. “I would say that this is the first time in my life where part of the thing below the surface (that has fundamentally shaped my life) has come up,” he said, noting his family is visibly minority. “It just feels like something in the air is a bit different.”
He spoke of how, just a few years ago, NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s career ended because he decided to protest peacefully by taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem. Now people were in the streets after a police officer took a knee on George Floyd’s neck, ending his life.
“If you’re here, you’re a human being, and if you’re here, you’ve suffered, and we all carry that suffering differently. This moment is about a particular suffering that people of colour around the world have experienced, and this suffering makes us a member of the human community, but it is particular, just like cancer is a particular suffering that warrants a voice, a tender heart, tender ear.”
Rathnavalu traced continental roots of racism back to Columbus’ arrival, the start of a process of pillaging and killing only possible within a narrative of dehumanization.
“From the very beginnings in this continent, humanity was snatched from both the brown peoples and the first settlers,” he said. “Part of the reason why we’re gathering is to begin to play our part in this healing that’s (been needed) for over 400 years. This is not a new problem. It’s deeply silent, pervasive, insidious, hurtful.”
He commended Rabbit’s courage to engage on Facebook, even when commenters were more concerned with her language than the fact a single mother had to send her son away from home in fear for his safety.
“The quibble is, oftentimes you’ll see on the media, ‘Don’t say it that way.’ How is a man supposed to say, ‘I can’t breathe’ in such a way that it communicates to another person to take their knee off their throat? What words are appropriate? And this is what we’re asking for, is simply that part of our human heart to open and to hear fellow human beings say, ‘I am hurting,’ that’s reaching out a hand. And to say, ‘I don’t like the way your hand looks,’ or, ‘I don’t like how you’re saying it,’ shows how defensive and how distanced from our humanity we are.
“You’re here because part of you wants to respond to our fellow human beings. And as that tender part of us opens, we will naturally do the human thing, which is, reach out.”
Other people of colour in the crowd stepped up to the microphone. A young Black woman, a Camrose high school student, read a speech with measured passion, naming and honouring Black and Indigenous lives lost to systematic racism and addressing the active protests going on across the continent.
“Our Black brothers and sisters are dying every day, every week and every month, everywhere. This needs to stop. We don’t want to burn down buildings, and we don’t want to loot your stores, but this is why buildings are burning, and why our people are speaking up to say enough is enough,” she said. “Some of us are getting violent because you were first violent toward us. You took everything we had, from our names, to our land, to our culture and our resources for hundreds of years.
“Systematic racism isn’t only in our police forces. It’s in our segregated media, jobs and schools. I am personally saying this, because I know what it’s like to be alienated and treated as less than human for the texture of my hair and the colour of my skin. I know what it’s like to be left out and ignored by those who chose to be ignorant towards my problems in the school system. I remember being bullied and picked on, and the teachers would do nothing. I remember being bullied for the food I ate, a part of my culture. Or being pressured to change my appearance and conform to these bland and uniform standards.”
A teenaged Indigenous person, who hopes to become a school therapist and tell students “there is nothing wrong with them for being who they are,” spoke next, encouraging the crowd not to use the pandemic as an excuse to avoid the hard work of change.
“Hatred is a plant. You can only kill it by pulling out its roots, and for the past 20, 30 years, all we’ve been doing is trimming its leaves and its stems,” they said. “But what we really have to do is pull it all the way out of the ground.
“Hate and racism should be stuff of the past. You should never look at someone and think, ‘I don’t want to talk to them,’ just because of their colour,” they continued. “These rallies are so important because our world needs to realize that it’s not some made up thing. It’s here, and it’s alive, and it’s well, and it should not be.”
A young Indigenous woman fought tears as she tried to articulate her fear of becoming one of the many missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.
“I’m a very anxious person when walking by myself or when travelling alone,” she said. “It’s not because I think I’m so pretty…it’s because I know that they can get away with it…Imagine that. I’m 20 years old and I’m scared of getting taken. And that’s a big fear.
“Can you imagine being a mother or a father, or being a sister, or brother, or a cousin, or an auntie, or an uncle, or a grandparent, having to go look for a child because the police wasn’t going to help you, because the government or the news wasn’t going to report it? And that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of going missing, and no one knowing my name.”
An Indigenous man listed just a few of the injustices he’d lived through: beatings by the RCMP, wrongful incarceration, losing friends and family members to suicide or death at the hands of the police, pulling his brother out of a lake days after RCMP finally joined the family-led search, seeing his kids come home from school crying from being bullied in school, being followed in stores or stared at in restaurants.
“It’s ridiculous the amount of things I have experienced. You guys say you guys know, but do you actually know what it’s like? Imagine going to school for the first day. You’re picked on. You’re name called. People talking behind your back. People making fun of your clothes, your hair, your food, your lunches. Imagine that for the entirety of your lifetime.”
As a senior supervisor for a construction company in Edmonton, he works with all kinds of people, sometimes meeting new immigrants who have been told, before even arriving in Canada, that Indigenous People are “dangerous.”
“We are not dangerous. Talk to us. We have a beautiful culture, we have beautiful food. We have a lot of different things that we can share with each other,” he said. Historically, Indigenous People and settlers “are all caretakers of the land. Why can’t we all accept the fact that we’re neighbours, hand in hand?…Like that thing in the Bible says, ‘Love thy neighbour’…I have no judgement against anyone. I have no judgement against you. You’re a person. That’s all you are. I don’t see no skin colour. I don’t see no difference. You work. I work. You have a family, I have a family. You have a house, I work for a house, too. We’re all people. Let’s just get along.”
Photos by Rajan Rathnavalu.
Editor’s note: You may wonder how, apart from the personal connection of our founder, racism connects to Newo’s ecological concerns. The two are indeed intimately linked.
As Canada furthers its journey towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, one can only imagine our approach towards economic life had we truly respected Indigenous perspectives of the natural world. As a vision of what that might incorporate, please check out our article on the Three Sisters.