Three months after he arrived in Canada as an immigrant from Liberia, West Africa, Emmanuel Drame was driving on an Alberta highway when he got pulled over by an RCMP officer.
He wasn’t speeding or driving erratically, but having seen real-life police shows on TV he did what he thought he was supposed to do.
“Before he even did come over, I was afraid,” said Drame. “Back then I had seen what was going on in the States and had experienced a certain level of racism, so the first thing I did was I opened the car door and put my hands up and put my leg out to show that I was harmless.
“He came over and I thought, OK here it goes, but he was nice and he said, ‘I’m going to show you how this is done.’ I told him it was my first time experiencing that and said OK, get back into your vehicle, close the door, put the window up and put your hands on the steering wheel and when I come over I will knock on your window and I want you to roll the glass down. I thought he was going to do what I had seen in the movies and ask for my licence and insurance but then he asked me ‘Are you high, are you drunk? Do you have any weed in your car.’ Just going through that awakened something in me.”
For Drame, that awakening manifested itself into his role as organizer of the anti-racism protests in Prince George the past two days. The 26-year-old, a UNBC international studies/political science graduate now working as a B.C. Corrections officer, let his passion for the anti-racism cause be heard through a megaphone Saturday afternoon. Sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota while in police custody, Drame led a crowd of about 400 sign-waving people gathered at the feet of Mr. P.G. in chants of “Black lives matter,” “We are unique, we are all people,” and “No justice, no peace.”
Drame says racism takes subtle forms, like being followed in stores by staff who suspect he’s shoplifter or the elderly lady on a crowded bus with a child who refused to sit next to him when he made room for her and instead chose to remain standing until another seat became available.
“Even before I came to Canada (in 2014), just watching from afar in Africa, and seeing what racism was like, it felt surreal because we always thought of it as a TV thing,” said Drame. “But when I came to Canada and started experiencing it in places I lived and places I worked, it didn’t sit right with me.
“I kept thinking what life would look like for those coming after me and for those already here with me. So I decided to organize this rally not to just create awareness about racism and discrimination or injustice as a whole but to let people know that as part of the human race we are people before our racial labels and we want to live without being conscious of our skin colour. We have contributed to humanity and society from the days humans were created, so we are not to be begging for validation and respect as people. We are tired of trying to let people know that we are people as well.”
Chiko States can relate to similar experiences he lived growing up as a black man in Halifax. States, who moved to Prince George last year to attend the College of New Caledonia, says while he has met many kind people in the city who treat him with dignity, Canadians still have much to learn about what life is like for visible minorities and the need for more empathy and sensitivity.
“When you’re with a person who is not of colour they might not see the dirty look that you’re getting or they might not recognize you’re being followed around a store or that the cop asks you to get out of the car you’re not driving and asks to see your ID,” said States.
“You just have to take a minute and realize that because you didn’t go through the situation doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful for somebody else. If you don’t think it’s bad then have the uncomfortable conversation with me and I can tell you why it is bad. Then maybe down the road in a week when you see it happen to someone else and you’re in a store and see a security guard following a black family that’s doing nothing wrong maybe you can speak up and say, just because they’re black it doesn’t mean they’re doing something wrong.
“When you grow up and didn’t have to experience it, it’s harder for you to understand,” he said. “Because it’s never happened to you it’s just makes it harder to accept it’s happening to someone else. But it’s not overreacting. If you see something going on that you don’t believe is just, speak on it, address it. When you close your eyes to the issue, you’re not part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem.”
Mayor Lyn Hall attended Saturday’s rally and he acknowledged there are systemic problems that create built-in hatred and misunderstanding based on race and ethnicity that lead to ugly incidents like Floyd’s death. Hall is hopeful the protest movement will educate people and help permanently change attitudes.
“I think what we’re seeing is peaceful protests here and across Canada delivering a message that people won’t stand for racism,” said Hall. “It’s been underlying for years and with what’s happening south of the border and around the world people are coalescing and sending a message to everybody.
“As I look back on history and the last few decades things like this one here feels different. It feels like it’s resonating with people and people who have had to deal with racism. When you see the number of people involved in rallies like we’re having in Prince George it reinforces in me there’s an opportunity to change things. We’re three months into the pandemic and we’re seeing changes individually and socially across the country. This is a transition time and today that’s what we’re seeing.”
Ivan Paquette, a Prince George musician who works as a government advisor for the Metis Nation of British Columbia, is encouraged the growing tide of pent-up emotion unleashed by a world outraged by the circumstances of the last eight minutes and 46 seconds of Floyd’s life and he is hopeful his death will cause people to reconcile their differences and rethink how they treat people of different cultures.
“There was a cause and effect and it gave us an opportunity to come together, and we have to come together,” said Paquette. “The (Indigenous) medicine wheel teaches that the colour black means reason. There’s a reason why everything has happened and it’s a shame what’s happened but justice will be served and those seas will ripple and they will create change.
“COVID is a curse but it’s also a blessing in so many different ways, because it’s revealed a lot of things,” he said. “When we were sitting in isolation we were thinking about a lot of things and that’s brought this forward. It’s revealed the darkness in the soul of man. This brought out the awareness we needed in order to make change, and we’re going to make change. We’re living in exciting times and we’re going to do this together.”