Whether people care to admit it or not, racism exists in Prince George.
Tyrell Laing has seen it with his own eyes.
The 22-year-old UNBC Timberwolves basketball team point guard couldn’t believe what those eyes were telling him while he checked his computer to find rental accommodations in the city.
“It’s hard to talk about personal experiences but the best example was when I went on the internet maybe a year ago and there was an ad on Kijiji for somebody renting out a basement suite and they had ‘whites only’ in brackets in the post – that was pretty shocking to see,” said Laing, who is speaking out again racism in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests touched off by the death of George Floyd, who suffocated under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer May 25.
“In our city of community, how would that ad ever be perceived as acceptable to society? Racism still exists in Canada. People seem to forget there was slavery in Canada and I think it’s important to understand it’s not strictly a United States issue, it’s a global issue. Canada experiences different levels of racism and we have our own issues, especially with the Indigenous community.”
Laing, who won the U Sports Canada West Conference scoring crown and was chosen as UNBC’s male athlete of the year, spoke to a crowd of several hundred people who gathered downtown for a protest rally and march Friday at city hall and would have attended the planned follow-up rally Saturday at noon at the Mr. P.G. site but it conflicted with the time of a team practice.
Laing, the product of a white mother and black father, has lived his whole life in Prince George and was raised in a country that encourages ethnic groups to keep their traditions alive as a multicultural mosaic, as opposed to the melting-pot assimilation of immigrants which characterizes American society. He said it’s less acceptable to be overtly racist in Canada compared to the U.S., but there is still an element of hidden discrimination among Canadians against people based on their ethnic backgrounds or colour of their skin.
“I think in a smaller city like Prince George, why people have a hard time (accepting people of colour), it’s because they are not exposed often enough to the different minority groups like black people,” Laing said. “When I was a young kid in the city there weren’t very many black people and that has recently changed with the college and university and people coming in from other places. But I think it is harder for people to become accustomed to or accept when they aren’t exposed to it, like the big cities are.”
Laing remembers coming off the bench to enter a game in one of the Prairie provinces a couple years ago and someone from the crowd shouted out to him that he was only “kind of good” because he was half-black.
Laing was encouraged by UNBC sports information officer Rich Abney sit on a stool at centre court at the Northern Sport Centre while he revealed his thoughts on racism and that video is now available on the T-wolves Facebook and Instagram sites.
The protests continue daily in the wake of Floyd’s death and while tensions have eased and the looting that plagued American cities has subsided, Laing said the message sent out by the protestors will continue to reshape public attitudes.
“They’re giving the black community a voice and currently they’re doing a great job of that, and I really hope this isn’t something that blows over in a week or a month,” he said. “If everybody is consistent with this energy it’s going to become who we are and it’s going to create huge change. I think we’re in the middle of changing what society accepts as normal and what we’re going to allow. It starts with dinner time jokes and those are the types of things that might be snuffed out. It starts at that level and I think we’re seeing the start of something pretty big right now. I like to think that we’ve come a long way but there’s still ground to make up and we need to keep pushing the bar to make this a better place to grow up in for any culture or race.”
Neelam Pahal grew up in the city and told the crowd at Saturday’s rally about the racism her family has endured since they came to Canada from the Punjab region of India.
“When it comes to racism it was a lot of micro-aggressions, my dad, my mom, my uncles, they’ve always had to conform to the white predominant white culture here, like not using their name,” said Pahal. “My dad’s name is Shingara and people are like, can we call you Shawn instead. My mom is Baljit, can I call you Bridget.
“I have a lot of close friends in the black community and they’re like family so it’s very personal to me. My best friend has experienced a lot of the micro-aggressions and it’s something I’ve always cared about. It it’s an issue that’s hurting people, come out and show your love, educate yourself. Any human being can empathize with people and what they experience and that’s what makes you a human being.”
Pahal has a psychology degree from UNBC and works as a supervisor of suicide prevention crisis line. She was encouraged by the loud feedback her speech prompted at the rally and promised real change is coming as a result of the anti-racism movement.
“It feels amazing, I’m really proud of this town and all the support that been shown and all the people that have showed up,” she said. “It just goes to show that no community is too big or too small to have people who experience the same kind of negative experience that’s caught fire in society and the system and that we can band together and educate ourselves and create this world we’d like to see.”