When Ann Potvin started school at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., she was the only Black student in her classes for the more than five years she spent there.
Slowly, the city’s Black population grew, and Potvin was one of the key people involved in creating a safe space for the community to express themselves.
On Saturday, she said there were more Black people together in one room in Thunder Bay than she’d ever seen before.
Potvin was one of several speakers at a Black History Month celebration co-hosted by Sisters for Canadian Black Community and the Regional Multicultural Youth Council, held at the Vale Community Centre.
The theme for the 2023 Black History Month is “ours to tell.” During the event, community members shared stories about overcoming discrimination and seizing opportunities they were told they and their children would never attain.
There was also discussion of the disproportionate number of incarcerated Black Canadians, and how to prevent future generations from falling through the cracks.
Black prisoners represent 9.2 per cent of the total incarcerated population, despite accounting for just 3.5 per cent of the overall Canadian population, according to a recent report by Ivan Zinger, the federal correctional investigator.
Throughout the evening, there was a common message among each of the speakers: Black youth must be empowered.
“It really helps the young people to realize that they are not alone and that there is a path forward, that they can actually become successful, they can achieve their goals and that racism doesn’t have to put them down,” said Potvin.
“Even if a young person feels alone, maybe at school, when they come to something like this, they realize there are other young people just like them that they can rely on.”
‘Embrace our Blackness’
Besides speakers, the event featured a DJ, African cuisine, a fashion show and a performance by the African youth choir.
Admire Kargbo, 13, said her nerves quickly subsided after she started singing, and she was proud to celebrate Black History Month through music.
“It’s a good way to showcase our culture and show that we’re more than what stereotypes like to do and say, but we can showcase our art and our songs and our food,” Kargbo said.
Fellow choir member Blessing Tiriwepi, 18, agreed, and said events like this help pave the way toward “a more united world and more united society.”
Shamaine Saira helped direct the youth choir performance. She moved to Canada from Zimbabwe two years ago and said much of the city’s Black community hails from other parts of Africa and from the Caribbean, so she’s glad to add to the number of Zimbabweans in Thunder Bay.
“We’re all from different cultures. We’ve just come to embrace our Blackness and just have fun as a community together,” she said of Saturday’s event, which has inspired her to get involved with the Regional Multicultural Youth Centre.
Tisha Duncan is one of the youth council’s presidents. It is important for the community’s Black youth to have a platform to share their culture, she said, and she was proud of her peers for helping put it together.
“As an Indigenous person … I can understand the feeling of someone not having a voice or having someone taking away that voice,” she said. “I just want to encourage everyone to learn about Black history, Black Canadian history. Immerse yourself in the many cultures that make up this beautiful community, and reflect on how our community can embrace its diversity even more.”
Her favourite part of the event, though, was seeing people’s willingness to try new food. She looked forward to sampling the yam fufu – a pounded dough ball that can be dipped into soups and sauces.