Sarah Nurse urges fellow Canadians not to ‘suppress our Black history’

Sarah Nurse joins Caroline Cameron to talk about her experiences with racial injustice with the unique perspective of a bi-racial Canadian.

A few years ago, Sarah Nurse was in the grocery store with her father. It was a normal, forgettable, everyday experience. And then Nurse’s father reached the cashier.

They were making separate purchases, so he put his items up to be rung through first. Nurse recalls watching as he did, and what stood out in that moment in hindsight, that moment which should have been normal and forgettable, was how the cashier’s expression changed as she realized her next customer was going to be a Black man.

“She was bubbly to everybody going through,” Nurse told Caroline Cameron during Saturday’s edition of Hockey Central @ Home. “And as soon as my dad walked up, I kind of saw the look that she gave him and she kind of tightened up and really didn’t acknowledge that he was even there.

“He greeted [her], he said ‘Hello,’ he went through everything, he paid. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t really even look in his direction after that. And then as soon as he was done and had gone through, she looked at me and just perked up, just like she had been before. And that was something that day that I realized, really white privilege. And I realized that because of the colour of my skin and the pigment, I go through life a little bit easier than he does.”

Being biracial, and in turn having lighter skin than her father, is what Nurse describes as her “unique lens” into understanding racism. She’s witnessed racism. She’s experienced it firsthand, in the hockey world en route to becoming an Olympic medalist where, as she put it, unless Black and Indigenous kids are “excelling at hockey, unless they’re good at hockey, they’re not afforded any respect.” And at times, as her grocery store story explained, she has been afforded white privilege too due to the complexion of her skin.

Growing up, Nurse learned these hard truths from her father, who is a history teacher, as well. Her unique lens combined with an understanding of Black History — and Canadian history in particular — has helped shape how she sees the current moment the world is going through, as protests continue across the United States, sparked by the death of George Floyd.

“I think that us as Canadians, we often, I guess, separate ourselves from what’s happening in the United States,” Nurse said. “And I think that as Canadians, we need to realize that that’s very wrong. There are many instances of unarmed Black, Brown, Indigenous people being, you know, killed by the police. Racism exists in Canada.

“I don’t mean to give a history lesson or anything, but I think of Viola Desmond, who is on the $10 bill. …people call her Canada’s Rosa Parks and we have to realize how wrong that is. Because not only did that happen nine years before Rosa Parks actually sat on that bus, we have to realize that what Viola did was just as important as what Rosa did in the United States.”

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Desmond’s mark on history began on the evening of Nov. 8, 1946, when her car broke down en route to a business meeting in Sydney, N.S. To pass the time as repairs were being done, Desmond went to the Roseland Theatre to watch a movie, requesting a ticket for a seat on the main floor as she was nearsighted and would have a better view of the screen. The ticket seller handed her a ticket to the balcony instead — the seating which was reserved for non-white customers.

Desmond walked into the main floor seating area and was challenged by a ticket taker, who told her she would have to move upstairs. Thinking there had been a mistake, Desmond returned to the cashier who in turn told her “I’m sorry, but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.” After realizing the cashier was referring to the colour of her skin, Desmond took a seat on the main floor anyway.

When she was confronted and told to leave her seat, Desmond refused and a police officer was called. She was dragged out of the theatre by the officer, suffering an injury to her hip and knee in the process, and taken to jail.

It took until April 15, 2010 — 45 years after her death — for Desmond to be granted a pardon by Nova Scotia Lieut. Gov. Mayann Francis at a ceremony in Halifax.

“I think that we often take [what Desmond did] for granted,” Nurse said. “We really suppress our Black history and I think that we need to really realize that and grow from it.”

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