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February is Black History Month. I had the opportunity to sit down with Peterborough’s two Black City Councillors, Kemi Akapo and Stephen Wright, to discuss Black History Month and to learn more about them.
On Friday February 21, I met with Councillor Kemi Akapo at Sadleir House. Councillor Akapo believes that everyone is involved in politics, whether active or not as active; whether you’re upset that a sidewalk was not being cleared, or are a local journalist. In terms of what is traditionally thought of as political involvement, Councillor Akapo noticed single issues that she thought should be changed, such as high fees for international students. As a Trent University alum, she felt that there was a need for a seat at the table, which happened through the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA). However, there are other ways to be involved in creating change. Councillor Akapo and I also talked about campus groups; connecting over having Trent Radio programs. She had two shows on Trent Radio while she was a student. One was called the K2 Show which talked about various topics through personal experiences with a friend.
Councillor Akapo said that music has played an important role in various stages of her life, and her tastes have varied with those stages. Currently, West African Drum music with the Djeemble is a reminder of her home (Nigeria), as there are stories and dancing that goes along with it, and it’s a reminder of warm weather. Some of Councillor Akapo’s favourite books growing up included the Box Children series, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, and mystery novels. Today, when there is time, she prefers reading autobiographies of both famous and not-so-famous individuals to gain a better understanding of the world.
Before running for council, Councillor Akapo had asked other people to run, but eventually people started to ask her to run. City Councils, especially in Peterborough, have historically and currently not been representative of their diverse municipal populations. Councillor Akapo also said that she doesn’t speak for every Black person, but recognizes the privilege the position of Councillor holds.
I asked why and how Black History is important. Councillor Akapo came from West Africa, so it was important for her to learn about Canada’s Black history. Her response was that the history in textbooks is often Eurocentric and seen through the male gaze. Black History Month offers an alternative lens, and helps inform people’s understanding of today, as well as Canada’s history.
Peterborough recently signed a Declaration through the Canadian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (CCUNESCO) Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities Declaration. It was signed so that municipalities can be more inclusive beyond physical abilities, and include people of colour, people marginalized by gender, LGBTQIA2S+ people, and other marginalized groups of individuals. Councillor Akapo also said that it is a reminder to make space more inclusive for minorities.
When asked how racism can be challenged, Councillor Akapo said that racism can be challenged by acknowledging its existence, learning about the ways racism presents itself, and working with people impacted and talking about it. Councillor Akapo made it clear that while she does not have all the answers, not talking about race is not one of the answers. This is the approach Peterborough took with the recent appearance of ID Canada posters in the downtown area: by acknowledging and speaking out against it, as well as asking the police to be involved. Peterborough could have chosen to ignore this issue, but decided to take the first step by taking action to challenge racism while also acknowledging it.
I met Councillor Stephen Wright at his office, also at Sadleir House. For Councillor Wright, Black History Month is not about sharing Black history with other Black people, it is about sharing the culture with other diverse groups. Much of Canadian history isn’t included in textbooks, such as Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia on the Bedford Basin. Local history also doesn’t reflect the involvement of freed slaves working on the Trent Severn waterways. In addition to this, there is a connection to Indigenous history. Mathieu Dacosta, for example, translated Indigenous languages for some of Canada’s earliest explorers. Councillor Wright talked about Josiah Henson who settled in Dresden, Ontario who inspired the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom Cabin. On Facebook, Councillor Wright makes a point of sharing Black history every day during Black History Month. Councillor Stephen Wright shared that February is Black History Month because Abraham Lincoln, who is credited with abolishing slavery in the United States, was born in February. Frederick Douglass’ birthday was on February 14.
When asked about his favourite books, Councillor Wright showed me Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy by Lincoln Alexander, the first Black Member of Parliament in 1968. He had the opportunity to meet Alexander, who he is inspired by. Another of Councillor Wright’s favourite books is The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, who Councillor Wright also met through the Economic Club of Canada.
I asked what his inspiration for entering politics was. Councillor Wright shared that he volunteered for late Alberta Premier Ralph Klein delivering papers, and his mom worked as a cleaner for one of former Prime Minister Joe Clark’s family members. In addition, he noticed the gap between policy and recognition of diversity. This was in addition to lived experiences of racism. Advocacy was seen as a means of changing the status quo, while politicians would write the rules.
Currently Peterborough has had two officially-declared years of Black History Month, with a presentation for jazz legend Ada Lee last year; and Beau Dixon, a local singer, songwriter and playwright this year. This, along with signing a Declaration to join the Canadian Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities, represents a significant contrast from Peterborough’s history. Councillor Wright noted that there used to be sunset policies which directly discriminated against Black people. In addition, Councillor Wright had been pulled over by police simply for driving. He also pointed out that when Lincoln Alexander was elected, the mainstream media used the n-word to describe him. Councillor Wright shared that Peterborough has applied for federal funding to hire a Diversity Officer and will know by the summer if funding has been approved. The Diversity Officer will look at all components of diversity including racial, gender and physical.
Regarding the recent ID Canada postering in Peterborough’s downtown area, Councillor Wright said, “If anyone from ID Canada wants a history lesson on Canada’s history, I’m happy to sit down and give that lesson.”
I asked how the media could improve, and one thing that was suggested for both The Examiner and Arthur is writing more articles on Black history throughout and beyond the month of February. This is something worth reflecting on throughout the year.