This February, Trent in Oshawa opened its doors to over a hundred people to attend their annual Black History Month events. A student-run initiative, partnered with community groups, their goal to educate their community on Black History month was an immense success. The events ranged from selling fair-trade art to hosting lecturers, including topics such as “Forgotten Black Heroes of the World Wars” initiatives, The History of Reggae, Women’s Rights Since Caribbean Independence, and numerous figureheads in Black History in Canada.
The comparison to Trent’s campus in Peterborough is silence, at best. Hardly any of this enthusiasm is present, and the reasons are abundant and problematic. To speak about these issues that surround this particular month, black students were interviewed to shed light on these reasons.
The president of TACSU (Trent’s African and Caribbean Student Union) expanded on basic problematic aspects of the month itself. Nnamdi Okaa, who goes by Andrew to his Canadian friends, identifies as Nigerian. He describes the feeling on campus as being immersed in assignments and work at this busy time.
“It doesn’t help that our term break occurs in February. Not only that, but there isn’t simply one black identity. We have an African and a Caribbean collective, and various other groups, who cannot be represented as one identity.”
He acknowledged the difference Canada has with Americans, who have iconic historic figures to look to during this month. He says that black students we see on campus also come from international backgrounds, so their history is not necessarily connected with slavery.
He continued to delve into the problems that arise in student group event planning, stating that “one is restricted in a way, there are rules and budgets you have to follow while keeping the best interests of students in mind. It would be much easier for an independent organization to host these events, for they would have the freedom and perhaps the resources to lead an educational initiative.”
The desire he expressed of an outside organization hosting events at Trent is then given further example with his own promotion company, Team 360, that organizes events in Peterborough and Toronto. This company is hosting a Hip Hop Dance Competition on March 1 at the Venue, and all are welcome to attend.
“There will be a Black History Month display up in the Bata Library Window, and a person will be there to answer questions should students feel they want to become involved. As well we are eager to have a debate on campus, and a movie night, the events will be updated on our Facebook page the week after reading week.”
Yolanda Ajak, who identifies as Sudanese Canadian, is a passionate fourth year student who works with KWIC (Kawartha World Issues Centre). She says that such an organization that Andrew desires for exists. “They are called Community and Race Relations Committee of Peterborough (CRRC), and hosted events for Black History Month this past week.”
Yolanda attended the event Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story on Tuesday, February 19. “It was a great event,” she said, “but I was surprised they scheduled their events during reading break, a time when students aren’t here to attend them. I was just relieved I was in town so I could attend the event, though my friend and I appeared to be the only Trent Students there. It was mostly community members.”
The CRRC formed in response to racist attacks on international students at Trent and Fleming College with the objective of raising awareness, educating, and documenting issues of racism in the Peterborough community, and receive a $2 levy from students.
“The only reason I knew about them is because of my work with KWIC, and I did an anti-oppression workshop with them. Their presence on campus is absent, not a lot of students know about them, not even a single poster is visible. Which is a shame, because organizations like these should be approaching student groups to break down barriers and work together to raise awareness about such key issues surrounding race, especially if that is their whole initiative.”
She went on to state that the topic of Black History Month is met with an uncomfortable and controversial atmosphere, where people are wary to draw attention to it.
“I understand it is an entire month devoted to Black people, and Native people only get a week, so when the topic of Black History Month is brought up people criticize it. That shouldn’t stop events from happening; the month already exists, and to ignore it completely for that reason seems like a feeble excuse.”
Yolanda previously worked with Chaka Chikodzi, who organized successful Black History Month events celebrating difference. She was worried what was going to happen to the month she feels should be celebrated, because it is not a lack of diversity that exists in Peterborough. Rather, a complete disconnect has occurred between the downtown community and campus life.
Ulyssies Lee Liam, who identifies as African, is a Trent student as well as the CEO of Next Entertainment and a Promotion Manager at the Venue. He speaks about the life in the community and about Peterborough’s true racism. “There are employers in Peterborough that are known for outright not hiring people of colour. There are even landlords that are biased towards race, as well as gender, when leasing space.”
Speaking about two businesses that recently opened up in Peterborough, he says, “You go to [these places] and there is only a certain type of person serving you.”
Though he acknowledges the bleak situation in town for people of colour, especially with international students paying significantly higher tuition than Canadians, his message is positive. He encourages students to apply as much as they can.
“Peterborough is looking to diversify itself, it has become obvious and the community is growing at Trent. Now is the time to apply and get yourself out there, and even if you are turned away, there are people in positions of power who are coloured. So don’t worry, we are there, we do exist.”
With racism being so rampant in the community, Black History Month events should be an opportunity for institutions to educate students about the issues. The tradition of ignoring significant racialized events in history is apparent in classrooms of high schools across Canada, giving rise to movements such as Idle No More.
It is imperative we do not continue that tradition, as Canada has a unique identity that is continuously being shaped by us. Inaction will only continue the cycle of apathy, but discussion will bring about awareness.
After that, we could have something like the events in Oshawa.