This article discusses thoughts of self-harm, forced hospitalization, and racialized violence. It may be triggering to some readers. If you require support, resources will be listed at the bottom of this article.
It was the last week of May, a few days after George Floyd’s murder, and Vanessa Simon was alone. As a Black woman who grew up in white family, in a predominantly white neighbourhood outside of Vancouver, B.C., she was used to it. Her best friend moved to Montréal a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic, and she didn’t know very many other Black people in her area.
Simon knew she was missing out on something growing up—but didn’t know what.
As a runner, she had already been shocked by the clips of Ahmaud Arbery being shot and killed while running in Georgia in February. Having moved to Victoria, B.C. in 2016, Simon was the only Black sprinter on her university track team and longed for a community that understood what she went through on a daily basis: the bullying in school, the taunts about her skin colour and hair, and the struggles that came from being “the Black girl” adopted by a white family.
She watched protests spark in cities across the globe following Floyd’s murder and wondered why Victoria didn’t have a rally in support of Black lives planned.
A lot was going through Simon’s mind in the nights following Floyd’s death. She admitted her mental health fluctuates frequently, and she wanted to be alone.
“I was the sprinter that trained on her own, but would hop into workouts [with other runners once in awhile],” Simon said in an interview with The Pigeon. “Moving to Victoria, not having family or friends here, and only having the school and training aspect, I did realize how alone I was.”
She felt that she’s always been alone—that’s been her mentality for a long time. Some weeks she would show up to track practice and classes, and other weeks she couldn’t find the motivation to attend either.
Simon knows she comes across as a confident person, but internally, she said she’s critical of herself. Even during track races, her mind would wander, as she questioned herself. “Why [am I] racing? I hate racing.”
“When you feel alone, your mind starts playing tricks on you,” Simon said. For the longest time, going through the motions of school and track practices, she didn’t know if there was even a Black community in Victoria.
“For the past four years that’s what my mind was doing. That’s why I’d not show up to practices, not really go to classes, because I didn’t really know what my purpose was. I didn’t have a sense of belonging […] I didn’t find my calling, my people, my group.”
Shortly after Floyd’s death, Simon made a worrying comment to a friend. The friend feared she was going to harm herself. The next day, Simon was away from her phone when her downstairs neighbour told her there were police cars parked outside her apartment.
In June, the CBC reported that at least four people—who were predominantly Black or Indigenous—had died during wellness checks in Canada since April.
After the B.C. provincial government agreed to review the Police Act in July, two Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA’s) on the committee reviewing the act recommended potentially having mental health workers, instead of police officers, as first responders on wellness checks.
Simon reiterated to the officers that she was doing fine, but the officers insisted she visit the hospital.
“They threatened to put handcuffs on me and I was like, ‘What is happening right now? I’m fine and not a harm to myself.’ But they’re like, ‘You have to come,’ and after I said I don’t want to, they put handcuffs on me.”
With the handcuffs on, Simon started to feel overwhelmed. She relied on breathing exercises to calm herself down. The officers took off her handcuffs as she got into their car, and eventually went with the officers to the hospital. En route to the hospital, Simon took deep breaths and counted the alphabet in her mind.
“A is for apple, B is for broccoli…”
Simon was adopted from Haiti when she was three-and-a-half years old, and grew up in White Rock, B.C. She’s the youngest of four siblings, and the only adopted person in her family.
“Externally, everyone saw me as this Black girl who was adopted by this white family and [thought], ‘Oh my goodness, everything is probably so perfect, and this family has done so well helping her integrate into this white community,’” said Simon.
She graduated from high school in 2012, and after a couple years at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C., Simon transferred to the University of Victoria in 2016 to join their varsity track program.
It was in Victoria where Simon fully realized how alone she felt—in terms of both her training and the culture within the city.
“As time wore on, I did realize that, ‘Okay, I’m actually the only Black sprinter on the team,’” said Simon. “I never, honestly, equate race to things, but I realized how alone I was in Victoria. Not seeing people that looked like me really took a toll on my mental health.”
Simon said she only told a few people about her trauma from the wellness check, and that she’ll often shy away from remembering the feelings from the night—but it was one of the main reason why she was compelled to organize a rally.
Simon was taken to Psychiatric Emergency Services at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee hospital that evening. She had a test done and talked with a couple of psychologists before being released. Afterwards, she was feeling helpless, and started a Facebook event with the hopes of gathering people in Victoria for a peace march the next day, Jun. 1, in honour of Floyd.
“Something came over me and I made the event, deleted it, made the event, deleted it. It wasn’t until 2:30 [a.m.] that morning that I was like, ‘No, okay, I’m going to make this and close my laptop, and go to bed.’ I woke up and got notifications [that others were] coming,” said Simon.
“I thought I was going to be marching alone.”
Throughout the following day, hundreds of people flocked to Victoria’s downtown core in support of Simon’s last-minute peace march. Simon passed around a megaphone and encouraged activists to talk about their personal stories battling racism and advocating for change.
The march was so successful that Simon and two of her friends, Asiyah Robinson and Pam Buisa, staged a second rally that drew thousands of people on Jun. 7.
Buisa, a member of the 2019 Pan American Games gold-medal winning Canadian women’s national rugby team and former University of Victoria Vikes rugby star, expected to spend this summer gearing up for the 2020 Olympics. However, after COVID-19 and the postponement of the Olympics, Buisa found herself in Victoria without her usual responsibilities.
Buisa was honoured when Simon asked if she would be willing to help organize the marches—although she had no previous experience in rallying.
“Vanessa reaching out to me, her believing in the fact that I could connect with certain people and have them show up, have media come through, and [believing] that I could be there alongside her was just so amazing and humbling at the same time,” Buisa said in an interview with The Pigeon.
After helping with the second rally, Buisa chronicled what it was like to organize the event in a personal essay for the CBC. She added that Simon’s leadership and trust inspires her.
“She trusts her instincts, trusts her community, and trusts her direction. Through that, she inspires those who feel like they don’t have a voice to speak up, and also empowers them,” Buisa told The Pigeon.
As protests across the world erupted in May and June, Bee Quammie wondered why Canadians insisted on calling on American activists to be saviours for issues north of the border.
“There’s a saying, ‘You won’t don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,’” said Quammie, a freelance writer and co-host of The Kultur’D Show on Global News Radio, in a phone interview with The Pigeon.
“I feel like, even more so, we don’t know where we are now if we don’t know how we’ve gotten here.”
In June, Quammie wrote an article for The Globe and Mail about the history of Black activism in Canada and the lack of education around Black Canadian history, which dates back hundreds of years.
From 1794, when a group of Black individuals petitioned for an All-Black settlement in Upper Canada, to Jamaican Maroons landing in Nova Scotia and fighting for their freedom in 1796, to the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement, Canada has a rich history of Black activism that is often overlooked in the Canadian school curriculum and overshadowed by movements in the United States.
Quammie’s inspiration for the piece came after scrolling through social media following the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young Indigenous and Black woman in Toronto who fell from her 24th-floor balcony after a 911 call brought police to her apartment for a wellness check.
She recalled seeing countless pleas to Shaun King, an American activist, on social media to help Korchinski-Paquet’s family prove the police’s involvement in the death, and wondered why Canadians were desperately reaching out to someone who may not know the complexities of different Black communities in Toronto.
“Does Shaun King understand who the SIU [Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit] is? Does Shaun King understand the stratification of Black communities in Toronto?” Quammie said. “Why are we looking to Shaun King when we have people, and have had people, who have been in the activist space, who live in the city, the country, and intimately understand these nuances?”
Writing has always been an outlet for Quammie. Growing up in a Jamaican immigrant family in London, Ont., she used to write short stories after finishing her homework. She won a writing contest in elementary school, and the prize was having lunch with Robert Munsch, her favourite author.
However, her parents didn’t believe someone could make a career through writing, so Quammie graduated from Western University with a Health Sciences degree. Her mother was a nurse, and Quammie’s second love was in health.
In 2011, while working a stressful job in the healthcare industry, she started blogging to take her mind off work. She wrote about natural hair care, health, and wellness, and in 2014 launched The Brown Suga Mama, a blog focused on parenthood from the perspective of a Black Canadian mom following the birth of her first daughter.
That year, she won Best Blogger at the 2014 Black Canadians Awards.
When her oldest daughter was in junior kindergarten, Quammie found out her class didn’t have anything planned for Black History Month aside from reading a book about Rosa Parks and announcing some Black history facts—so she went to her daughter’s school and taught the history of Black activism in Canada herself.
“I was like, well, if you can talk about Rosa Parks, you can talk about Viola Desmond,” Quammie said. “It was the same thing repeating that I experienced when I was in school […] I never learned about Canadian Black history.”
Viola Desmond was a Canadian businesswoman and civil rights advocate who fought racial segregation in Nova Scotia in the late 1940s. In 2018 she became the first Canadian woman to appear independently on a Canadian bank note.
Desmond is only one in the ranks of many famous and influential Black Canadians, including William Hall, another Nova Scotian and the first black person to ever receive the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for individual bravery; Saskatchewan’s Willie O’Ree, the first Black NHL player; and Mary Ann Shadd, who was born in the U.S. but moved to Canada in 1851 to become the country’s first female newspaper publisher.
Quammie has since spoken at other schools about Black Canadian history, from kindergarten classes to graduate student lectures at the University of Toronto, and estimates she speaks at 10 to 12 schools each February. While she doesn’t mind coming in to teach, she wishes that the study of Black Canadian history wasn’t seen as a once-a-year occurrence.
“February has always been a busy month,” she said. “The good thing I’m seeing now, over the past year, is the requests for those types of events aren’t just limited to February anymore. Which is great because Black history doesn’t go away on March 1st.”
This past June, a movement was started by Canadian students to have more Black history taught in schools. Over 44,000 people signed a petition for Alberta schools to include Black history in its curriculum, and both Quammie and Simon say education reform is an aspect they hope carries momentum following the rallies in the summer.
Quammie’s optimism for the future was dulled by watching the Grand Jury decision last month to not charge any officers in the police killing of Breonna Taylor—especially since Quammie has two young daughters of her own. She’s hopeful, though, after watching others take it upon themselves to learn and become allies to the Black community, that there is a movement for change growing.
“I cannot look at my children and say, ‘Well, girls, this is as good as it’s going to get. You’re Black, you’re girls, this is how life is going to be.’ I don’t want to give my kids that, I want to give them better.”
Simon is unsure what advice she would give to a younger version of herself. Four months after she hosted two rallies in support of Black lives in Victoria, and over 40 minutes into her telephone conversation with The Pigeon, she hesitates when she’s asked, and says she never learned to advocate for herself because she grew up alone, thinking her voice was irrelevant.
Simon wants others to know they aren’t alone. In a life where she’s constantly been searching for her calling, and a group of like-minded people to speak with about the adversity she’s faced as a Black woman in Canada, Simon is compelled to ensure others don’t go through what she’s gone through.
“I like to advocate for other people so that they can have their voices heard. That’s why I passed around a megaphone, passed around the mic. I want other people to share their experiences.”