UVic students lead massive 9 000-person Peace Rally for Black Lives at Centennial Square

Local News

Chants of “Vic Sees, Vic Hears” marked a rally for centering Black lives and voices who refuse to be beaten down by systemic racism

from left to right: Vanessa Simon, Asiyah Robinson, Pamphinette Buisa speaking at the Black Lives Matter peace rally.
From left to right: Vanessa Simon, Asiyah Robinson, Pamphinette Buisa speaking at the rally. Photo by Michael John Lo.

For the second time in a week, Victorians rallied in peace and solidarity for Black lives and to stand vigil for George Floyd, a Black victim of police brutality in Minneapolis that has sparked demonstrations across the world. Organizers estimate over 9 000 were in attendance at Centennial square on June 7. 10 000 joined via live stream. 

The rally was organized by UVic students Vanessa Simon, Pamphinette Buisa, and recent UVic graduate Asiyah Robinson. All three are new to organizing activist events, but felt the need to stand up and make Black voices heard. 

“In the grand scheme of things, this is just the beginning of something greater,” said Simon.

“Vic Sees, Vic Hears”

Black Lives Matter peace rally, protestors with fists in the air
Photo by Carissa Massullo.

Indigenous representatives, headed by Brianna Bear of the Kwakwaka’wakw and Songhees nations, began the rally with the Women’s Warrior song and shared their own experiences and struggles with systemic racism in Canada.

For the next three hours, an attentive crowd of thousands listened as Black voices shared poetry, anthems, songs, and their lived experiences and calls to action. At the end of each sharing, the crowd chants, “Vic Sees, Vic Hears.” 

black lives matter peace rally protester's sign reads racism is small dick energy
Photo by Carissa Massullo.

“This is us telling you, that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” Robinson said, to thunderous applause from the crowd. “We are not going to allow ourselves to be diminished any longer …  We’re coming together, we want you to walk with us — but if you’re not there, we’re moving anyways.”

The rally had ASL interpreters and was live streamed for all who were not able to come or chose not to come. Volunteers ran first-aid tents and provided masks for those who did not have one.

Buisa, an athlete with Rugby Canada, said that despite wearing the maple leaf uniforms of Team Canada, “the first thing I wear is my skin, and that experience is something that I can’t detach myself from.” 

“I was scared to stand up publicly to say ‘I am Black and I am proud’,” said Buisa.

Speakers at the rally included Sartu Ibro Ali, Josiah Morra, Charity Williams, Barbara Hudlin, Lisa Gunderson, Yolande Johnston, Moussa Magassa, and the three highschool girls behind the activism instagram account @urvoicematters_: Heidi Kebede, Lul Teklemariam, and Hiwot Andarge.

At its peak, the rally filled up Centennial Square and spilled out onto the neighboring streets, blocking traffic on Pandora street and taking up at least one lane of traffic on Douglas street. At least three hundred people were listening and attending from inside the Centennial Parkade. 

The Martlet spoke to the organizers while they were setting up at Centennial Square, a few hours before the rally. 

Simon studies psychology and Buisa is a political science student. They were both Vikes athletes, and moved from other parts of Canada to attend UVic. Robinson, a Bahamian international student and a prominent member of the UVic campus community, and recently finished her Biochemistry degree. 

“I was prepared to march alone,” said Simon, referring to the first rally and march that she and Buisa led on June 1, 2020. “Now we’re all coming together and speaking together unified.” 

Robinson came on to support Simon for the second rally.

The three organizers have responded to many concerns of the community regarding COVID-19, accessibility, safety, and how the rally would respect local indigenous protocol. 

Photo by Michael John Lo.

Buisa and Robinson both have prior experience in dialoguing and helping the street community, and the three have engaged in dialogue with the unhoused community that lives in Centennial Square over the last two days regarding the rally.

Buisa said that they chose Centennial Square for its proximity to City Hall and the square’s significance as the heart of the community.

Centennial Square sits on the traditional unceded lands of Lekwungen peoples, also known as the Songhees and Esquimalt first nations. It also sits on a demolished section of Chinatown, as part of the historic racist segregational policies of the Canadian government.

“We had to make sure that we covered every single caveat, every single option, every single problem,” said Robinson. The work was tiring, but had to be done, said Robinson. She stayed up with Simon and Buisa until 4 a.m. organizing and was running on two hours of sleep.

Despite concerns from some in the Black activist community regarding the short timeframe that the organizers had to prepare for the event, the rally was a success. Legal Observers Victoria says there were no major incidents at the rally.

The rally ended at 7:30 p.m., with Bear leading a final rendition of Women’s Warrior Song. 

Hundreds remained at the square to light candles in memory of George Floyd, and to celebrate the Black voices that were heard that day.

Black Lives Matter peace rally, protesters light candle for George Floyd
Photo by Michael John Lo.