The issue couldn’t be cancelled.
What started as a large gathering of young and old — many wearing pandemic-related face masks and holding signs around the Rotary Bandshell in Riverside Park without any sort of direction — quickly became organized when five women of colour took to the stage on Thursday.
People of all ages had ventured to the downtown park to take part in the protest against racism and the deaths of people of colour at the hands of police, despite the fact organizers announced cancellation of the event that morning after receiving criticism on social media that people of colour were not planning the rally.
In addressing the large crowd without a microphone, the quintet that opened the floor spoke out against discrimination, led chants and sent out calls for justice. From there, more people felt compelled to share their thoughts.
Ellora Sundhu told the crowd she had never been more proud of her community, a nod to the large turnout of hundreds of people, noting as a lifelong Kamloopsian, she sometimes feels lonely being the only person of colour in a room.
“I guess me coming up here and kind of shaking and saying my words are kind of my therapy,” she said.
Sundhu said Canada isn’t immune to racism, noting the Chinese head tax, the Indian Act and Japanese internment camps as examples.
Tim Unaegbu, who teaches physical education at Kamloops Christian School, said he wasn’t planning to speak, but felt compelled to once in attendance.
“I was shaking. I was itching to go up there,” Unaegbu told KTW, adding he was intent on attending even after hearing of the cancellation, even if only one or two people showed up with whom he could discuss issues.
“Until racism is cancelled, this will not be cancelled,” Unaegbu told the crowd.
He also shared a couple instances of feeling profiled by Kamloops Mounties — once when he was pulled over and his passenger, who was also black, was asked to produce his ID and another in which he was pulled over and an officer said he wanted to make sure Unaegbu’s vehicle wasn’t stolen because one of the licence plate bolts was missing.
“Not everyone is like that, but it’s here. It’s in Kamloops — it is,” Unaegbu said.
Kamloops resident Les Carty also took to the stage to share his story from two years ago, on March 21, 2018, when he was held at gunpoint in his own yard by an RCMP officer who thought Carty was trying to break into his own shed in his downtown backyard.
Carty told KTW he heard of the last-minute cancellation, but noted he was coming to the rally regardless because the issue of racism cannot be ignored.
“People are unhappy with the situation of black men and women, Indigenous women and people of colour getting murdered at the hands of law enforcement for no other reason than the way they look,” Carty said.
Larissa Simon didn’t think much of the cancellation notice in opting to attend the rally.
“I really just thought it was the right thing to do. I feel if you don’t come protest, I’m just using my white privilege for the wrong reasons,” Simon said.
The Thompson Rivers University student from Princeton said she felt the protest went well and was pleased people organized organically.
Miranda Dick, who is Secwépemc, was one of the five women who took to the stage to lead the rally, welcoming people and asking them to express themselves.
Dick said the platform needed to be filled and said she took to the stage because she believes in justice where justice is needed.
Local realtor, Alisa Hopkins, joined Dick — who she did not know — on stage to lead the rally.
Having heard of the cancellation beforehand, Hopkins said she attended anyway, knowing people would still gather.
Hopkins said if no one was going to speak, she was going to because she had something to say, adding she was humbled by the crowd’s respect and attention.
“We all want the injustices to stop,” she said.
Hopkins, whose father is African-American and whose mother is French-Canadian, said she saw how people stared at her parents when she was growing up.
“I myself don’t see it as much because I’m not a visible minority … but I’m still asked where am I from,” Hopkins told KTW, noting that while not everyone asks the question in a negative way, the narrative needs to change.
On a whim, the rally then organized itself into a march from Riverside Park to the Kamloops RCMP detachment about six blocks away.
Dick, who helped lead the march, said it was important to have the crowd’s messages heard at the detachment and throughout the downtown core.
Multiple officers watched the protest march, with multiple police vehicles parked for traffic control outside the police station.
Following more speeches and chants, protesters marched back to Riverside Park with a police escort.
Carty said Thursday’s turnout showed people are stepping up to the plate and doing more than simply saying they aren’t racist.
“You need to be anti-racist, you need to be a voice to stop this and today really proved that,” Carty said. “I felt the love today from everybody in the audience. They saw me today. They just didn’t see a black man with dreadlocks.”
Speaking on the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the incident that sparked Thursday’s event in Kamloops and mass protests and unrest across the United States, Unaegbu said it was a tragedy, but nothing new.
He said he isn’t sure what clicked for people, but hopes to see change.
“It won’t finish in my generation, but maybe for the younger generation there might be some change,” he said.