Breaking barriers is something Nina Charlie has been trying to do since she was in grade three. She was named runner up in the province of BC’s Multiculturalism and Anti-Racism Awards ceremony on March 21 in the category of Breaking Barriers. The Award is provided to an outstanding organization or individual for work in tackling systemic or institutional racism and reducing barriers for marginalized communities.
There were more than 100 submissions for three different awards presented by the B.C. government. There were two winners of the Breaking Barrier award — Aimee Chalifoux from Nanaimo and the Kamloops African Society.
Charlie is 21 and a life-long Ladysmith resident. She said she has looked at herself and said many times, “I’m no different than them.” Her mother was from Greece and her father from Jamaica. Charlie said she experienced racism throughout her schooling.
“I found, even in elementary school, that I was a subject of racism. It might not have been totally visible, back then, but it did have an affect on me,” she said. “I found that I wasn’t really accepted — I was different. I didn’t see people like myself. I tried everything to try and be a part of the group, but I always felt that I was not a real part. That’s the thing I can’t understand. High school was distinctly racial bullying.”
Standing up for herself led to more abusive treatment. “I found in grades 11 and 12 there were more racial slurs and experiences and that led me to where I am headed today,” she said.
Charlie said there was very little support in the school, in fact once when she reported it, she said the response was “It’s bad but we need to work on the reverse racism towards whites first!” Charlie had one counsellor who really made a difference. “She listened to me and that helped me to get past the other stuff, most of the time.”
An avid dancer, Charlie got strength from her dance class as well. “Especially when the teacher took maternity leave. I was asked to fill in and instruct and that gave me strength and an avenue to let out some of the stuff.”
Having endured the hurt of racism, Charlie has adopted passive activism to help her in her campaign to eliminate discrimination. “I don’t want to see other kids, now and in the future, go through what I and others have gone though,” she said. “Making the statement that racist behaviour is not okay either through protests, speaking out or any other non-hurtful ways is one of the points I want people to see and adopt. We’ve been quiet too long!”
Charlie is in her third year at the University of Ottawa in the field of conflict studies and human rights. It is the only program in Canada that combines the study of conflict and human rights.
The study takes a multidisciplinary approach, critical perspectives, debate and in-depth research into the causes of conflicts and the role of human rights in resolving conflicts.
While at the University of Ottawa Charlie and eight other students held a peaceful sit-in, for six days, in the residence building. The sit-in was in opposition to a teacher who had been making racial slurs in various classes and no action had been taken.
“While we were in the sit-in two rather large white men entered the building, dressed in camo clothing and were yelling at us and banging on the walls. They were yelling that we were racists and communists and stuff. Finally security came and forced them to leave, but we were really scared! When it was over we got together and formed a talking circle and each one of us let it all out. There was a lot of crying and emotional suffering,” Charlie said. “It takes a long time to get over that sort of thing and you can never totally forget about it.”
Charlie has another year and a half left at university. At the present time her courses are all online, but she’s hoping in the near future that it will be back to class with more hands on instruction.
While at home in Ladysmith, Charlie is working part-time and spending time with family.
“My mom and dad and sisters are important. We talk about this subject frequently and I know they are all behind me. In our house family is very important and strong and that is a big reason why I’m where I am today,” Charlie said.
She was one of the Ladysmith Ambassadors in 2018/19. Charlie also helps at the Ladysmith Secondary School with its STAAR (students taking action against racism) program. As a mentor for the program, Charlie goes to talk with the students whenever asked.
At university she is also involved in projects that lead her into different panels and discussion groups. She has also personally spoken at forums on multiculturalism and discrimination. She had the opportunity to speak at an event at Telford University in front of 2,000 people and she found that exciting.
Charlie said she understands making changes doesn’t happen over night and changes that are needed to make us all the same will take longer. “Attitudes and expectations need to change. Acceptance has to be universal. The need for power needs to give way to the willingness to understand and walk beside each other as we are all human.”