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Sunday Thomas - That Night

Do you ever take a moment to reflect on the role that seemingly, random events have played in the development of the person you are? I have been reflecting on a series of seemingly random events I have experienced over the years that make me say to myself “holy shit.”

On what turned out to be one of the most bewildering nights of my adult life, I drove a small rented sedan; my passenger in the front seat was a male, similar in complexion and height to myself. Nestled in the back of the sedan were three women of colour. It was cool – five Professional, People of colour volunteering their time to give back to Nunavut’s youth.

We had just arrived in Regina Saskatchewan for the 2014 North American Indigenous Games. Chuck and I were the coaches for the male team, while the three women formed the coaching squad for the girl’s basketball team.

The five of us had just picked up the rental. We were on our way to greet the kids as they arrived at the airport with the mission staff, when little did we know that we were about to confront a situation that is all too familiar to black people in Canada: “Driving while Black.”

As we drove down a quiet neighbourhood in Regina, a median separated the flow of traffic in one direction from the other. On the other side of the median, traveling in the opposite direction was a local police cruiser. The officer looked at me and I looked at him. I knew that the two black men sitting in the front seat caught his attention. I immediately sensed his intentions and I said to Chuck, “Brace yourself.”

The cruiser crossed through an opening in the median and tailed us for a few seconds until we stopped at a red light. The officer turned on his flashers indicating that I should pull over on the other side of the stoplight. I complied and contemplated my position as the officer took his time to arrive at my window. I thought to myself, “you are forty something; a Director at your job, you are driving a rental and you have 4 other adults with you as passengers. What reason can he have to pull you over?”

I was met with the typical “license and registration please.” My response was “no problem, but can you please tell me why you pulled me over?” The officer gave me a frown and said “license and registration please!” At which point, I responded “no problem, but why did you pull me over?” The officer gave me a look that made me ask myself “now where is this headed?”

I tell you the honest to God truth; this cop put one hand on his “waist,” leaned in and repeated aggressively “I said license and registration please.”

Now, right there I had a decision to make. Do I continue to stand up for my rights? Or do I risk being the next victim of police brutality on the 6 O’clock news? What would you do?

I often hear people say “young black men have to learn to keep their mouths shut when stopped by police.” Until you have been the victim of an arbitrary police stop, you don’t really understand the gross attack on your personal dignity. Let me submit to you that keeping your mouth shut is easier said than done.

At that stage in my life, I chose to keep my mouth shut. I gave in and quietly provided the officer my license and registration. He walked away with my credentials and sat in his cruiser – feigning checking me out. After a few minutes, the officer walked back to our rented sedan, handed my “papers” back to me and said, “I just need to know who comes into my town.” With that, he moseyed on his way and rode off into the sunset like a scene from an old western. What his high horse dumped at my feet though was a pile of “proverbial shit.”

In the midst of all the anger, disbelief and discussions of injustice that arose between the five of us as we drove away from this incident, I quietly felt deflated. I felt alone. I was in a car full of people, yet I felt alone.

Events like this are isolating; they are traumatic and they leave lasting psychological effects. Like other incidents of trauma, people of colour struggle to cope with the memories, emotions, and thoughts associated with these events.

The lack of power and control over one’s life in these moments leaves a residue of toxic stress and negative emotions that manifest in so many ways, that we have not even begun to uncover the damage that historical trauma has inflicted on racialized people in our country. The problem is not that it happened. The problem is that it happens.

I think anyone can divest from an unfortunate situation. What do you do though, when these situations happen continuously? Thus lies the visible minority narrative. Everyday living can be like walking through a minefield. Sure, there are days that you can walk through the field and not encounter an explosive. But for the most part, everyday social situations we encounter can be fraught with physical, emotional and psychological danger.

What do people do with these experiences; so many of which are stored deep in the human psyche? How do you detach and maintain a healthy outlook? I read somewhere that the goal of demining is to remove all of the landmines to a given depth and make the land safe for human use. This is where our work lies. As Canadians, we need to unearth the deeply seeded core beliefs that give rise to encounters that really are dangerous to all of us. There is no victor in such encounters, these situations do not promote harmony or respect to anyone involved.

As I write these stories that chronicle my personal experiences as a black man in Canada, I am aware that most everyone can recall memorable experiences that have taught them some of life’s greatest lessons and have molded who they are. But I sometimes feel saddened by how many of my seemingly random events are negative experiences. Nevertheless, these are my stories as I have lived them; every moment is precious to me and without them I would not be the man I am today. Above all, they are the stories that make up my Canadian experience; and the Canadian experience is after all your experience.

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Thank you for sharing your experience. Your experience here was expressed and I deeply felt your words. Thank you.

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