‘Our existence is our resistance:’ Young women leading social activism


HALIFAX — They are young. They are women. And they are racialized.

Young women of colour are at the vanguard of Halifax’s social justice movement, part of a new generation of social activists.

Kati George-Jim is a 21-year-old Indigenous student and member of Dalhousie University’s board of governors.

Masuma Khan is a 22-year-old Muslim student leader at the Halifax university.

Rebecca Thomas is a 31-year-old Dalhousie graduate and Mi’kmaq poet laureate.

Together, they are unapologetically standing up for social justice and refusing to back down in the face of controversy.

They are harnessing an ethos of social unrest emanating across the country and beyond, impatiently working to dismantle white privilege, patriarchy and heterosexism.

And they are not going away.

“Racialized women have always been at the forefront of civil rights movements,” said Margaret Robinson, Dalhousie University assistant professor of sociology and social anthropology. “What’s changed is the broader society’s ability to recognize them for their leadership and work.”

Social media and growing up with a black president in the United States has also shifted the social justice movement, she said.

“The new wave of activists grew up seeing a black president for eight years,” Robinson said. “They’ve had access to instantaneous online information and communication that I couldn’t have dreamed of as a child. That changes everything.”

Rebecca Thomas, Halifax’s aboriginal poet laureate, said young women are being empowered by higher education.

“The more you start to understand and learn, the more you want to do something,” she said. “Education is very empowering. We’re being told that our voices matter, and we’re standing up to be heard.”

Thomas, originally from New Brunswick, said women of colour have always had strong voices, and that civil rights movements in the past have helped pave the way for the new generation.

Young women are now starting to “punch through power structures” once reserved for white men, Thomas said.

“We’re recognizing the strength we have, and it’s really great when you get the community’s backing,” said Thomas, who has a master’s degree in social anthropology from Dalhousie.

Last spring, she appeared before Halifax council with a poem chiding councillors for shutting down debate last year over how the city commemorates its controversial founder.

Edward Cornwallis issued a bounty on the scalps of Thomas’s Mi’kmaq ancestors but is still honoured with a park, statue, and even a street within a stone’s throw of the city’s Mi’kmaq friendship centre.

Moved by her poem, a rookie councillor decided council needed to revisit the issue, and the city has since created a panel to examine how Halifax should pay tribute to Cornwallis.

Thomas said her official role with the city allows her to work for change from the inside, but at times she feels the need to self-censor.

“I find myself in this torn and unfortunate position to make my arguments palatable, so I keep getting invited back, so I can still continue to poke and prod,” she said. “I have a duty and responsibility to keep access to these people in power.”

While Thomas may take a more poetic and amicable approach to social activism, she applauds the more militant actions of others.

Masuma Khan, a Dalhousie Student Union executive, stood firmly in solidarity with Indigenous protests against Canada 150 celebrations.

She refused to back down, even under threat of sanctions as the university investigated her for a profane Facebook post that criticized “white fragility.”

Dalhousie dropped the complaint against Khan last week, in part due to mounting concerns about violent and hateful messages she was receiving.

“It’s a matter of life and death. Standing up against white supremacy is not an easy thing,” said Khan, who wears a hijab and was born and raised in Halifax.

“There are times I get frustrated. But I don’t have a choice,” the fourth-year international development studies student said. “People shoving supremacist ideologies in my face make me want to dismantle those structures even more.”

Khan added: “Our existence is our resistance. I’m going to exist, I’m going to keep going. It doesn’t stop here.”

That sense of urgency is shared by Kati George-Jim of the T’Sou-ke First Nation in British Columbia.

“Racialized women are taking control of the conversation,” the fourth-year political science student said. “With my identity comes responsibility. As an Indigenous woman, I have a responsibility to speak up and use my voice.”

George-Jim took on Dalhousie’s board of governors for what she called institutionalized racism, prompting an apology from the board’s chairman who insisted Dalhousie is not led by racists.

“To me, it just feels like everyday life. It doesn’t feel like social activism,” she said.

It’s a sentiment all three share.

“We don’t stop being women of colour at the end of the day when it’s comfortable and time to relax,” Thomas said. “We don’t get to take a break from our own oppressions.”

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press