At the end of summer, a Grade 9 Comox Valley student was motivated to take action by something she overheard the previous school year, and in block letters, wrote ‘Black Lives Matter’ in chalk on her driveway.
What followed, including harassment at home, was not expected, but not surprising due to a larger undercurrent of racism in the Valley, says Julie Gruban’s mother (name changed to protect the child’s privacy).
“(The incident) left me wondering why someone is so triggered by Black Lives Matter written in chalk. People think there’s a disconnect in Canada, and that it’s an American thing, but it happens in our community every single day.”
Last year when Gruban was in school, she heard a group of boys use a racial slur towards a fellow student who is Black. She addressed the group and followed up by telling her mother, who contacted the school.
Both she and her daughter felt more needed to be done.
“I took some chalk and wrote out Black Lives Matter. Then a man walked up to me and told me all lives matter,” explained Gruban, which was the first of many interactions that followed.
Undeterred, she added four additional BLM paper signs in weather-proof zip-lock bags attached to their fence.
“She is 14 years old; something sparked her and I stand behind her,” added Gruban’s mom, who admitted she contended with neighbours, who were eyeing her property to read the signs afterward.
Initially, one neighbour approached her and indicated she was taken aback from the chalk sign, but once she read some of the additional signs (“Black Lives Matter/Pro Black isn’t anti-white”; “We’re not trying to start a race war/We’re trying to end one”) she admitted her perspective changed.
“An overarching message that kept coming up was ‘This happens in the Comox Valley? I didn’t think that sort of thing happens here.’ “
A few days later on a Sunday morning, Gruban and her mother awoke to the sounds of “really aggressive” banging on their front door.
Dressed in her pajamas, Gruban’s mother greeted a woman at her door who told her “that chalk writing is so offensive.”
She asked the woman to step away from her porch, inquired why she was offended and offered to have a respectful conversation when she was calmer.
“We have to be prepared for backlash,” she told her daughter.
A bit later, the woman returned.
“I called the police because she has now come into my personal space and tried to take away my safety.”
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Following a second incident at school involving a racial slur towards a person of colour, Gruban’s mother, whose brother-in-law is Black, had enough. She said she didn’t like the way the school handled the first incident, and personally contacted the family of the student who was being targeted.
“I wanted them to know that my daughter and I have (their) back. They have a right to go to school, to feel safe and that just ‘taking it’ is not okay. The entire world is on fire and it doesn’t belong to us – we’re too afraid to accept our privilege, and we’re too afraid to put our own safety at risk. This is happening in our community every single day. My five-year-old nephew is looked upon as cute now, but he’s going to soon be perceived as a threat. I can’t be a bystander.”
She also received an apology from one of the students involved in the school incident and noted they had a good conversation about racism.
“What is a joke to one is an ongoing issue in someone else’s life,” she added.
Both Gruban and her mother agree more needs to be done within the education system and they could use their experiences as teachable moments.
“(This incident) forces people to look at their own story, and it’s pretty uncomfortable. It needs to be taught about. We see hearts all over the Comox Valley (in support of health care workers), but here is a chalk sign and people lose their marbles over a symbol that reminds people of injustice,” said Gruban’s mother.
“We need more conversation. It’s on all of our shoulders as a community.”