By Vicky Qiao

More than 800 people turned out to support a student-led Black Lives Matter march that started at Markville Mall on June 13. The event was attended by Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, Coun. Khalid Usman, Markham-Thornhill MP Mary Ng and members of York Regional Police (who were invited by the organizer).

Markham Public library shared a #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, including nonfiction, long-form journalism and essential fiction.

Sydney Baxter—Youth for Change

Sydney Baxter is a high school student in Markham, Ont. From organizing the Markham Black Lives Matter protest and leading the Anti-Black Racism Youth Liaison Committee, Baxter is already sparking change with fellow youth activists and allies in this quiet city.

“I’m almost done the entire school system, and from day one all the way to now I haven’t really seen any changes at all… I think that they definitely need to take a more firm approach.”

Sydney Baxter
Sydney Baxter speaking at the rally
When she’s not speaking at a rally, Sydney Baxter enjoys writing poetry about social justice and running track. (Image courtesy of Nicole Baxter)

When 16-year-old Sydney Baxter realized that there weren’t any Black Lives Matter initiatives in her hometown, she decided to start one herself.

“I don’t hear anything going on in Markham. I don’t see any protests. It’s really quiet here,” she said. “So I decided that if I wanted change to happen, I have to do something about it myself.”

Baxter organized the Markham Black Lives Matter march on June 13, which drew more than 800 people. The attendees gathered at Markville Mall and marched to Toogood Pond to raise awareness on the issue of systemic anti-Black racism within the local community.

“We had speakers. We had a march. There were a lot of people that showed up,” said Baxter, who is headed into Grade 12 at Markham District High School. 

Baxter has lived in Markham for her entire life and said she noticed a lack of anti-racism advocacy—especially at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Markham has the highest visible minority population (72.3%) of any Canadian city and is ranked as Canada’s most diverse community. Nonetheless, Baxter said racism in Markham often happens “behind closed doors.”   

“There’d be communities that collectively did not like Black people. And they just keep it, quote-unquote, private,” she said. “But it really actually had public effects.”

Baxter said she felt that the school environment in Markham was “not very open to Black people or Black culture.”

“It was like, you had to be a certain way. You have to, you know, have straight hair, fair skin… because that’s what the kids said to me,” she said.

“I’m almost done the entire school system, and from day one all the way to now I haven’t really seen any changes at all… I think that they definitely need to take a more firm approach.”

Baxter speaking at the Markham BLM rally.

Inspired by the youth who organized the Black Lives Matter solidarity march in Aurora, Baxter had started planning the march with the help of her mom Nicole Baxter.

“My role in this was really to be a supportive mom,” said Nicole, who works for the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). She reached out to friends for resources on organizing a protest, but she said Sydney was the one who was in charge.

Since the march, Sydney Baxter has become involved in several new anti-racism initiatives started by the city. She has been in talks with local MPs and the director of YRDSB about anti-racism programs.

She researched the provincial curriculum and then spoke to educators about “implementing more Black Canadians,” into it. 

“I also saw that within the curriculum we already have, even though it’s flawed, there is still room to implement Black excellence into it.”

Teens holding up signs at Markham BLM protest
Markham Black Lives Matter protest. (Image courtesy of Nicole Baxter)

Recently, the teen attended the first meeting of Black Youth York Region, an organization she co-founded with three other students. Open to youth from all backgrounds, she said the meeting saw almost 200 participants and some lively discussions.

The group’s next steps include more town halls, more events and spreading the word about anti-Black racism, she said.

“And at the same time, [we want to] kind of give people action plans and things that they can do in order to really create lasting change and not just conversations.”

Markham BLM protest
Markham BLM protest. (Image courtesy of Nicole Baxter)

The discourse around systemic racism is still very new in Markham. Though she was happy with the protest turnout, Sydney Baxter said a continued, cohesive effort is needed to change the reality of anti-Black racism in Markham and everywhere. 

“When you’re taking your kid to get ice cream, when you’re in the grocery store, when you’re getting your nails done—you need to apply this energy everywhere you go, otherwise, they’re not going to make a difference.”

Top calls to action

City’s response:
– Markham mayor Frank Scarpitti released a statement on anti-Black racism.
– City of Markham announced a strategy to combat anti-Black racism.

– Call for York police reform at the meeting of the York Police Services Board.
– Appoint an individual with a commitment to diversity in the community
– Collect race-based data
– Address lack of government support and policies that hold the system and institutions accountable

Police’s response:
– York Regional police Chief Jim MacSween made an announcement addressing George Floyd, anti-Black racism and solidarity with the Black community
– York Regional police joined Vaughan’s June 6 Black Lives Matter protest

 “Today I stood with our Black community and we will continue to do so. Solutions can be found if we all stand together.”

tweeted by Chief Jim MacSween

School Boards:
– Create more inclusive school curricula that features more Black inventors and politicians
– Investigate Black student suspension rate and hold admin and staff accountable for overrepresentation

School Boards’ response:
– York Region District School Board selected Turner Consulting Group to develop its Anti-Black Racism Strategy, and
– Provided a list of resources for anti-racist education for parents and three webinars for Black youth to learn about the available mental health supports.