A new, Black-led coalition in the NWT aims to confront systemic anti-Black racism in the North by advocating on behalf of northern Black communities and empowering Black voices.
Ambe Chenemu, president of the coalition, told Cabin Radio: “We are here for our community and we’re here to speak up for them, and to find a way to promote and educate people on our experience.”
The Black Advocacy Coalition up North – BACupNorth, for short – began forming shortly after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Chauvin has since been charged with murder.
“Sometimes, you just need a uniting factor,” Chenemu said. “Sadly, in this case, it was really tragic event after tragic event after tragic event.
“It’s so unfortunate that we had to wait this long to get something like this going but this is really the first time, in my experience, that I am seeing – here in the North – a Black community coming together under one umbrella.”
The coalition, which begins with a six-member executive, plans to lobby for racial justice, equality, and equity for the territory’s Black community on a number of levels including government, law enforcement, and public and private businesses and organizations.
Chenemu said the group would “provide a safe space for Black people in the North to be able to commune together and celebrate the diversity and the richness of our community amongst ourselves, and have something that Black people can identify with in the North.”
He said: “You know, it takes a lot of grit. It takes a lot of common factors within a community that motivate people to stand up and take action for or against something.
“There are a lot of things that [the coalition] is looking to promote and advance, but also things that we’re looking to end, and eradicate, and delete from the system.”
While currently based in and focused on the NWT, Chenemu said the coalition hopes to expand across all three territories.
The coalition, now active on social media, expects to soon launch a website and establish an official membership process. An in-person launch event is planned for February, Chenemu said, Covid-19 depending.
In the meantime, Chenemu expects the coalition to start “opening those lines of communication” with the territorial government.
Below, read a transcript of Cabin Radio’s full interview with Ambe Chenemu about the formation of the Black Advocacy Coalition up North. A version of this interview will air on Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News on October 20, 2020.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Meaghan Brackenbury: Tell me what BACupNorth is.
Ambe Chenemu: BACupNorth means “Black Advocacy Coalition up North,” and it is a [non-profit] organization that is here to empower Black voices and promote the Black experience in the North. [Also] to advocate for and advance justice, equality and equity for Black people here in the North, and in all spaces of government, law enforcement, public and private businesses and organizations.
And, obviously, to provide a safe space for Black people in the North to be able to commune together and celebrate the diversity and the richness of our community amongst ourselves and have something that Black people can identify with in the North.
This is a long time coming, and I think we’re actually running a little bit behind. It’s so unfortunate that we had to wait this long to get something like this going, but this is really the first time in my experience, really, that I am seeing, here in the North, a Black community coming together under one umbrella, and speaking with the same voice, people really getting excited to get the work that we intend to do done. We’re really motivated by so many different things within our community, and this really is an exciting experience for a lot of us, just working through the process of creating this organization and really talking about the differences in our community as Black people. Whether you look at background, ethnicity, the different challenges that we face here in Canada as Black people, especially in the North – this has really been a wonderful, surreal experience, for me especially. But I’m sure I’m speaking for a lot of our members right now.
Can you tell me about what goes into creating a coalition and that moment that inspired you to make this happen?
I can’t really tell you because it just comes from a place of grit. Sometimes, you just need a uniting factor and sadly, in this case, it’s really tragic event after tragic event after tragic event that we finally have decided to come together in this form. It takes a lot of common factors within a community that motivate people to stand up and take action for or against something. And in this case, there are a lot of things that we’re looking to do well and promote and advance, but also things that we’re looking to end and eradicate and delete from the system.
There is, I think, that common factor of being Black, having the Black experience – what that means, especially for a Black northerner, and coming together and celebrating that is something we look forward to doing. I’ve not seen that happen in the North, and a lot of people are very excited to see that happen. Doing that and being able to really get into the thick of things here, which is looking at government reform, looking at working with law enforcement.
Sitting through and talking about those issues is not easy. It’s really not. And for us to be able to come together in this manner, I think, really tells you how strong our community is, and that we are here to stay and we’re here to speak for ourselves, especially in the North for the first time.
Can you tell me about the northern Black community and the challenges it faces?
Some of those challenges are even just the stereotypes that other people have about the Black community. There is not enough education out there for people to know, so people misrepresent our experience a lot. I personally am from Africa – I’m from Cameroon. I have a specific experience that I want to expose. I’m not Black Canadian, I wasn’t born in Canada, I don’t have a Black Canadian heritage. But I live in Canada now, so I want to be able to speak to my African experience but with Canadian values. So, there are a lot of those stereotypes within our community that I personally would like to educate people a little bit more about.
When you get into more deeper issues like how the system operates for us, you go to schools and you see the types of curriculum that you have in schools. Our Black kids, young boys and girls, are going to school and not looking up to Black role models that look like them. There’s a fundamental problem with that. We live in a society that really caters for a certain group of people. And for us, that is a challenge, because for someone that has a son or daughter that goes to school, they come back and have all these questions about people that have nothing to do with their heritage…our stories never get told, and our kids don’t have that. They cannot identify with anything in their community. So, again, as a parent, or as a Black person living in the North, those are the challenges that we go through. At this point, there’s no process to rectify things like that.
If somebody has a grievance at work – like a Black person has a grievance – we’re stuck in a system where sometimes our issues, and where we’re coming from, are not being understood in the manner that we think it should be. For example, we have a union that represents all people, and they try to do a good job to represent people fairly. But as a Black person, if somebody was racist to me at work or was discriminatory to me in some fashion, sometimes I may feel that the union does not understand my perspective enough to be able to provide me with a type of defence or opportunity to understand where I’m coming from, as maybe a white Canadian. So, where do you go?
That’s why we’re here. We’re here because we know where our community members are coming from. We understand the situation. Indigenous peoples have talked about this for a long time. They live here, they understand the community, they know where the issues are, and another system cannot rectify that issue for them. And so that is why we’re here. Because sometimes we know about those issues and we’re able to advance those issues better, in a way that can be understood. You could go into so many different challenges living here. We don’t get our stories told in the media. I mean, how many times have you heard a Black story in the media? How many times have you heard a Black experience in the media? There’s lot of things happening in our communities and nobody talks about it. Nobody puts it out there. So those are some of the issues that we face.
BACupNorth is really here to start to look at these policies. How can we put our experience out there a little bit more? How can we change the stereotypes surrounding our community? Law enforcement – how can we build that relationship so that they can understand where we are coming from? Those are just some of the things that, as a Black person, you have those at the back of your mind but you don’t really sort-of express it because nobody will understand, nobody knows where I’m coming from, nobody can really follow up on this in the manner that I want it to happen.
At the end of the day, we just follow up a lot of things and then we shrug it off and we move on. It shouldn’t be that way. So we are here for our community, and we’re here to speak up for them, and to find a way to promote and educate people on our experience.
What does BACupNorth advocacy and action look like?
First of all, we’ll use the resources that are available. Partnering up with the organizations that are here to sensitize a little bit more on our process, and working on reform within our institutions, is something that BACupNorth is looking to get right into immediately. Looking at education and the system up here, and how we can work side by side with Indigenous peoples and tell our story in a way that truly reflects our community. These are all things that you could do through volunteer workshops, you can do that through rallies, talking to the media, being able to put our stories out there, have media cover our community a little bit more. Those are things that we have on our bucket list.
In the next phase of our organization, we have a lot of Black businesses up here and we need to start looking at giving those businesses a fair opportunity to succeed and to promote themselves in this environment. We get meshed into other processes a lot, and we’re not able to distinguish ourselves and identify our own opportunity. BACupNorth is here to lobby for that, to advocate for that, to demand that we have those fair opportunities and that those opportunities are created for members of our community as with other members of our community.
When it comes to fighting and pushing and advocating and demanding for autonomy and justice and all those things, we will do that, if that’s what it takes. But I think for us, though, it’s important to collaborate more, to find those pockets where we have opportunity to work and improve on the system, so that you can better serve all of us together as a community. So that we’re not leaving one group of people behind.
BACupNorth is a space for Black people. We are here first for the members of our community, to unite ourselves together, to identify and find ourselves, to celebrate our history, our culture, ethnicity, background, to celebrate our identity as Black people first, and provide that space for members of that community. And then we’re able to now reach out and start to look at what else can we do in this community.
We are on Indigenous land, and there’s a large and vibrant Indigenous community in the NWT. You mentioned in your Facebook post on Thanksgiving that the organization was grateful for Indigenous allies. Can you speak to me a bit about this allyship?
I think that is one of the most exciting things about our Black advocacy. We have come to a community and we have only been accepted with love, support, and encouragement. We recognize that we are on Indigenous lands and we also recognize the challenges that they have been through, and that they continue to go through. It’s very important for us, first of all, to acknowledge that and to recognize where we are, and then to start to find the opportunities in that space. We’re really coming as an ally that is open to working together on a lot of the things that our communities go through as minority communities here in the North. Indigenous peoples have faced a lot, but there’s so many opportunities, as well, to come together that will be a strength for us going moving forward.
We face racism in both our communities. We face discrimination in both our communities, and there’s a lot of people that have identity problems because of the history of our community. Those are really areas that we’re looking to work on, to build on together. There is no way that our Black advocacy will succeed here in the North without support from our Indigenous community. They have a lot of resources. They have many, many, many strong leaders within their community. They have a very resilient community, and that is something that we’re looking to learn from them. We’re hoping that they can teach us what it means to be who they are in terms of walking through their own process and showing us a path forward in that relationship, working together. I don’t see how, in any way, shape, or form, we can succeed here without the support of our Indigenous allies.
Has it been an exciting time for you to come together and work toward this?
I would say it is very bittersweet for us.
We’re very excited to see our community come together and rally behind achieving something that is monumental for us. But it’s also very sad that we had to wait this long, and for so many tragic things to happen, for us to be able to celebrate ourselves.
So I wouldn’t necessarily say it has been an exciting experience, but I would say it has been a very profound experience for us. Even in this process, we have experienced a lot of growth in ourselves. We have come to identify ourselves differently, but together. We have come to see that we really have a lot of things in common, but we also have a lot of differences. And so through this process, we have been able to bring all of our experiences together and see what issues are really important to us, what issues can really grow our community, what issues we want to tackle and take on as an organization that will bring a purpose to all Black northerners.
For me, that has been a very surreal experience. In seeing all the richness and the diversity in our community, we’re able to come together, and speak together, and agree on things together and work and move and advance together. That is amazing. I’ve never seen that happen before, and especially from the ground up. It’s mind-blowing.
Honestly, and I know I speak for a lot of our members, we’re feeling very confident that we will get a lot of good things done for our community and also for the North. For the very first time here in the North, we’ll be able to celebrate ourselves and identify in a community and in a space that we feel comfortable in. I don’t know if there’s a word to say what that that feels like. I’m just very grateful that I am alive to see such a thing happen, and be a part of the process, and be able to participate in it.