TORONTO — In 1996, Donovan Bailey spoke up about racism in Canada months before he ran the fastest 100-metre race in history up to that point, earning an Olympic gold medal and cementing his place in the history books.
Twenty-five years later, many things have changed. Bailey, who has three world championship titles alongside his two gold medals, is now in his 50s and retired from sprinting.
But as he watched the events of the past two weeks unfold, he knew that one fact was the same: racism was still pervasive in our society.
“The last two weeks — I’m tired,” Bailey said. “Frankly, I’m numb. I really am. I’m emotionally exhausted.”
Speaking to CTV News during a Sunday segment called Realities of Racism, Bailey said that when he saw the video of a white Minneapolis, Minn. police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while the Black man begged for air, he was “disgusted.”
“It appears way too easy for a police officer, that police officer in particular, to snuff the life out of a man who seems to be very helpless,” Bailey said. “I thought it was probably one of the most despicable and disgusting things that I’ve seen.”
Ever since Floyd was killed on May 25, the U.S. has been embroiled in protests, with Americans taking to the streets to call for an end to police brutality against Black people.
Canadians have responded by organizing marches, protests and vigils in solidarity with the movement in the U.S., and to draw attention to Canada’s own issues with anti-Black racism and police violence against marginalized communities.
“At this juncture, I keep asking myself, and my friends … is this past two weeks just another episode of what we’ve seen so many times before, or is this time, we’re going to see some results?” Bailey said.
At the height of his career, Bailey made headlines with a quote that appeared in an interview in Sports Illustrated in 1996, shortly before his record-breaking run in that year’s summer Olympics.
“Canada is as blatantly racist as the United States. We know it exists,” Bailey was quoted as saying. “People who don’t appear to be Canadian — people of colour — don’t get the same treatment.”
Bailey would dispute the exact quote shortly after, saying in a Toronto Star interview from the same year that he had actually said Canada was “not as blatantly racist as the United States, but it does exist.”
He told CTV News on Sunday that the “systemic racism — that’s certainly in Canada — has got to be dealt with.”
Blatant racists, he said, are “really easy to deal with,” because people who are loud about their bigotry have “already shown you their cards.
“So essentially, you can go around them, you can go over them, you can go under them or you can go through them,” he said.
The danger of Canadian racism is that “in Canada, it’s racism with a smile,” he explained.
“There’s gotta be a different game plan for each of [these types of racism].”
He said Black people and other people of colour in Canada are invited “into the room” or to apply for jobs, but that often this show of inclusion and diversity is only symbolic.
“We know for sure that in many cases, [the] decision’s already been made,” he said. “I think that that’s a big part of the problem.
“One of the things that we certainly encourage, is that you have to be able to vote,” he said, speaking on how people of colour can make themselves heard in Canada. “You have to be able to own businesses, you have to be able to be in the boardroom … be a part of the decision-making process. You have to be entrepreneurs.”
Bailey was born in Jamaica, but grew up in Oakville, Ont. He said he “didn’t get the same treatment that I hear a lot of my brothers and sisters talk about,” in terms of police harassment when he was a teenager and that “Oakville was amazing.”
However, he said he “always knew that colour mattered.”
“My parents were community leaders,” he said. Bailey’s mother and father started the Canadian-Caribbean Association of Halton, a non-profit organization that promotes diversity and still operates today. “So we were encouraged to give back when we’re blessed.”
He points to his parents’ influence as one of the reasons that he was “not afraid to speak up.
“Hence me being called arrogant,” he added, referring to the reputation he had garnered in the sports world for being outspoken during his time in the spotlight.
That confidence didn’t just help him snatch medals and set world records in the 1990s though. It helped him stay true to himself despite adversity.
“I thought that I was Black and I was proud and I was beautiful,” he said. “Because that’s what my mother and my father said to me.”
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