A Template for Change in Guelph, Ontario

June 10, 2020

Guelph, Ontario is a small university town an hour west of Toronto known for its environmentalism, agriculture and veterinary studies, and its small vibrant arts scene. It’s also the home of the ArtsEverywhere festival and is the Canadian headquarters for ArtsEverywhere.ca. Although the city of 132,000 residents has a history of activism, the June 6th, 2020 demonstration condemning the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police saw an unprecedented 5,000 people hit the streets in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, with another 20,000 participating virtually.

Demonstrator at the June 6, 2020 Black Lives Matter march in Guelph, Canada. Image courtesy of Andrew Nosbic Knight.

Guelph’s residents have been staying home since March according to provincial emergency orders regarding the global pandemic. But North American outrage over George Floyd’s killing has seen a unified uprising sweeping across the continent, with people taking to the streets honoring Black lives and demanding justice even in the midst of COVID-19.

Guelph organizer Kayla “Kween” Gerber told local news that seeing the streets swelling with demonstrators on June 6th produced an “exquisite sense of energy” in the downtown core. The flood of supporters forced organizers to reroute their march through the streets in order to let everyone gathered take part. Those on the fringes of the crowd had to check in to hear the live streaming broadcasts of spoken word poetry, music and speeches.

There is no Black Lives Matter chapter in Guelph—yet—and the closest is in nearby Kitchener, Ontario. Marva Wisdom, a local community leader who spoke at the rally, had the crowd chanting “The change starts now!” She says that the success of this march was in bringing together the younger radical faction of Black activists with the older Black community that has been moving for change for decades. 

Some supporters of the Guelph Solidarity Protest to Support Black Lives Matter have issued calls to action urging the city to divest from Guelph police services; reallocate those funds towards housing, food security, mental health supports, and anti-racism initiatives; and end surveillance and ticketing of BIPOC folks, among other demands.

Activists Marva Wisdom & Kayla “Kween” Gerber at the peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration in Guelph. Image courtesy of Justin Wisdom.

The movement has been stoked by the suspicious death in Toronto of 29-year old Black woman Regis Korchinski-Paquet on May 27th, 2020 while in the presence of police. The circumstances surrounding her death are now being examined by the Special Investigations Unit, the civilian oversight agency meant to keep Ontario police accountable. Canadians are pivoting away from shirking responsibility for racism in Canada and turning their attention to the United States, instead examining what is going on in our own backyard.

Wisdom is no stranger to racism in the workplace–or to actively engaging to dismantle it in the community–and as a result she started Wisdom Consulting firm in Guelph to help organizations improve through leadership, diversity and inclusivity trainings. She later became the founding president of the Black Heritage Society and is now the director of the ArtsEverywhere Festival in Guelph.

Wisdom says her son, who owns a successful jewellery business with studios in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario, has never been so open about his encounters with police until this week. Like so many people of colour, he wanted to get on with his life and his business without racist encounters with police defining him. Now that he was having nightly conversations about it, she says, “I saw the pain on his face every time he came by.”

Wisdom recalls her humiliation as a mother, when police came to her home in Guelph over Thanksgiving dinner looking for her then 13-year-old boy and threatened to take him to the police station on false accusations of hitting a white girl. Only after her son’s white friend, who was over at the time, vouched for Wisdom’s son did the officer leave. “He could easily be one of those statistics. I realize that on an ongoing basis,” she says.

Recent research from The Black Experience Project, where Wisdom was one of the leads, found that three out of five young Black men in the Greater-Toronto-Area (GTA) say they are often treated suspiciously because of their race. A mind-blowing 80 per cent of Black men between 25 to 44 years old said they had been stopped in a public place by the police. Not only this but more than 60 per cent of Black women responders reported that not only are they treated with disrespect due to race, they feel others expect their work to be inferior because of their skin colour.

Demonstrators young and old gathered in downtown Guelph to protest police brutality and demand social justice for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. Image courtesy of Andrew Nosbic Knight.

When asked what might have propelled the people of Guelph to come out in the numbers they did amid a pandemic, Wisdom reflects: “Black and Indigenous people up here … can’t feel secure no matter how well we’ve prepared our lives, because we are seen as less-than, we are seen as a threat to others. It doesn’t matter what stature you are, how much education you have, when someone sees you, they don’t see someone on an equal footing.”

According to Wisdom, the pandemic has allowed people to empathize with what it means to feel like things are out of your control: “COVID-19 has become in a way an equalizer, more people are able to empathize with another’s plight. And I do believe that vulnerability has created an environment for people to exhale and recognize what it feels like.”

Organizers pulled the event together quickly and efficiently. Protestors had to wear masks, and additional masks were handed out by volunteers to those without. No politicians or police were invited to speak—“This was our time,” Wisdom says of the decision. Black, Indigenous, and POC volunteers wore yellow arm bands to indicate they were the marshals.

Wisdom wonders whether perhaps police are starting to understand what it means to be profiled: “Police officers in this time are in a lot of pain… because their service is being brought down by some, and those “some” are now defining who police officers are—and that is part of Black experience and Indigenous experience.” Wisdom says she hopes this movement will change things: “We want them to be ignited, to hold their colleagues accountable.” 

Since the lead up to the protests, Wisdom has addressed the Guelph police leadership team at the invitation of police Chief Gordon Cobey in whom she sees a lot of hope. “In working with him over the last few weeks, I believe him to be committed to change. That’s what I want, I want our community to be a template of the change that communities are fighting for.”


Anna Bowen is a Guelph-based writer, poet, and editor. She works at Arts Everywhere, Musagetes, and Publication Studio Guelph. She is former news editor at This Magazine and has an MA in Sociology and Equity Studies (now Social Justice Education) from OISE/University of Toronto.

Marva Wisdom is the Director of the annual Arts Everywhere Festival in Guelph. Principle of Wisdom Consulting. Founding President of the Guelph Black Heritage Society (2011-2016) and a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She holds a Masters of Arts in Leadership from the University of Guelph.To learn more about her work, go to https://www.marvawisdom.com/.

Andrew Nosbic Knight is an Elora, Ontario-based photographer and DJ. To listen to his music, go to https://www.mixcloud.com/andrew-nosbic-knight/.

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