A physically distanced anti-racism rally and picnic took place in the Township of Wilmot, with police and bylaw nearby keeping a close eye on the proceedings. People gathered Saturday morning, masked up and ready to make a statement against white supremacy.
Immediately following the Derek Chauvin trial, posters calling for a White Lives Matter rally were seen in the Township of Wilmot. The posters linked to a public Telegram group of the same name, where hundreds of white supremacists around the globe planned to rally on May 8th. The group also links to regional groups for Canada and Toronto.
In response to these posters, grassroots activist group GroundUpWR organized a counter rally. While they were a catalyst for the planning of the event, David Alton, member of GroundUpWR, said they were just one of many people and groups that came together to make this rally happen.
“What I do appreciate about this particular organizing is that they have centered our voices. It’s not about making me do more work. It’s about white allies, joining in the fight in very real, very concrete ways. It is about not being silent. It is about standing up and speaking out in a place where your power and your privilege, will allow your voice to be heard. And that gives me some hope in the midst of a pretty trying time.”– MPP Laura Mae Lindo, virtual speaker at event
The “Transform Wilmot – Anti-Racism Rally” event was held at Castle Kilbride in Baden, which has become an epicenter for anti-racism dialogues following last year’s controversy over the creation of a Prime Minister Path to honour John A. Mcdonald.
Alton said that one main goal for the event was to support Wilmot residents in launching a community-led anti-racism strategy built around the following calls to action:
- Classifying white supremacy as a public health crisis
- Ensuring transparency and systemic change in the Prime Minister’s Path consultation
- Standing in solidarity with the demands of ReallocateWR, O:se Kenhionhata:tie/Land Back Camp, Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, Unsheltered Campaign
Organizers were adamant that attendees follow public health guidelines around physical distancing and wearing masks, bringing extra PPE for those who needed. There was also a livestream of the event and a car rally at the same time. It’s unknown if a White Lives Matter rally in Waterloo Region went ahead or was canceled; however, the anti-racism event went ahead.
GroundUpWR media relations coordinator Aashay Dalvi said that while racism was everywhere, “it has come to the forefront when it comes to the identity of Wilmot.” Dalvi points to Mayor Les Armstrong as being part of the problem. Recently, he was amongst the male councillors at a meeting who failed to push back against a hostile delegate. The delegate was blaming the bad reputation Wilmot was garnering due to its female councillors speaking out against racism. Last year, the mayor shared a “white lives matter” video on Facebook, which he had to apologize for twice, but few were convinced it meant real change.
“The mayor has himself pursued white supremacy on his social media platform, creating an environment where white supremacy is allowed, ensuring that white supremacy and racism thrives,” Dalvi said.
Dalvi pushed back at any assertions that there was any comparison that could be made between their rally and anti-lockdown rallies happening in Uptown Waterloo. She made the point that white supremacists have used those rallies to further radicalize people.
“There is a reason why you see so many white supremacists join on the backbone of the anti-mask rally and the anti-lockdown rally. There is an anti-lockdown rally happening [Sunday] in Waterloo. Dear bylaw officers. Will you be there? How present are you going to be there?” she asked.
There has been significant silence from local political leaders on this most recent uptick in white supremacist organizing in the region. Notably, City of Waterloo Councillor Jen Vasic has called for a pandemic protest protocol urging her colleagues “to acknowledge the racism evident in the resistance to” the Transform Wilmot rally. City of Waterloo councillors were one of the only municipal representatives to add their voices to the call to tackle white supremacy in Waterloo Region.
In anticipation for both the White Lives Matter and Transform Wilmot rallies, the Township of Wilmot released a statement reminding people of the provincial stay-at-home orders in effect.
Members of Waterloo Regional Police’s COVID Integrated Response Team and bylaw officers were standing by the outskirts of the rally, monitoring their actions. One police van and two cruisers were seen nearby, with a few more either down the street or driving by. At this time, it’s unclear if any charges were or will be issued under the Reopening Ontario Act.
People slowly trickled into the space throughout the morning, with people. An estimated 60 people were on the grounds at the peak of the rally, and just over 50 joined in online. The weather was pleasant and Dalvi was pleased with the turnout.
“It’s been so chill. We are so grateful to all the support that we’ve received,” she said.
Wilmot resident Margaret Walker was in attendance, and said she felt the mood of the event as tense.
“I personally believe that some of the division comes from lack of education and we need to keep educating,” she said. Walker, a pastor of St George’s Anglican Church in New Hamburg, said that she believes this is going to be a long process.
“This is not going to be quick, but the more we can get the conversation out into the open, the better it’s going to be,” Walker said.
“Racism doesn’t end at town lines,” said Anvita, a University of Waterloo student at the rally. “So while there may be geographic demarcations where one city is Waterloo and this is the Township of Wilmot, I don’t think that it means that it’s any less important to do the work and to show up.”
Lauren Prousky from Kitchener-Waterloo said that as a non-visible minority, she felt a certain level of responsibility to do what she can.
“I’m Jewish, so the ‘white lives matter’ people hate me too, even though I look like them,” Prousky said. “I think people like me have a different sense of responsibility, where I can show up and I can make a difference on the inside.”
Steve Green from St Luke’s Anglican Church in Cambridge said acceptance of diversity was important to him as a Black man with biracial and Asian children.
“It’s critical that we stand up [so] the next generation knows that it’s critically important to have different ethnicities; different diversities; that we are one.”
Cheyanne Thorpe was among the first people speaking at the rally. She’s no stranger to conflict, having led the movement in Wilmot to recognize the harm the John A. Mcdonald statue represented to Indigenous people. She and others faced hate speech and intimidation, sometimes turning violent.
“We understand that we’re violating public health guidelines here,” she said. “We also understand that there is a gap in the public guidelines as we sit for peaceful, meaningful and necessary protest. We’ve been here since last summer, so this is nothing new to us.”
GroundUpWR organizers set up a Zoom webinar for Black, Indigenous and Racialized voices to connect, in order to manage numbers and limit zoom bombing. Member of Provincial Parliament Laura Mae Lindo, Lori Campbell, and Selam Debs were some of the people*on the Zoom call who were invited to speak at the event. Organizers were able to plug the audio from the call into a speaker for attendees at the park.
MPP Laura Mae Lindo spoke of the importance of “gathering your people.”
“I want people to feel empowered [and] courageous enough that they gather their people, that they speak to whoever’s in their sphere of influence and they explain why this organizing today is so important,” she said.
“I don’t think that you can hear this enough. A white lives matter march; white supremacist posters; whether it’s one or 50 or 1,000, [it’s] violent,” Lindo said.
The rally wrapped up around noon, at which point people began to disperse. This was also when police and bylaw began to move in from the outskirts to discourage anyone from staying. The move proved to be intimidating amongst organizers and others. Several began filming police actions from that point until everything was cleaned up, and everyone had left.
*Note: Teneile Warren, one of the founders of insideWaterloo, was a virtual speaker at the rally