Peterborough’s Community and Race Relations Committee Chairperson Fights the Good Fight for Social Justice — with Her Religious Faith and Love of Family Guiding Her
By Melodie McCullough
As chairperson of the Community and Race Relations Committee in Peterborough, Ontario, Charmaine Magumbe hears a lot stories.
There’s the incidents of racial slurs towards visible minorities that so often go unreported. Like the young Asian man walking down George Street on a warm summer evening, only to have insults yelled at him from a passing car. There is the Black man who lives in Ajax, because “there’s no way in God’s green earth he would live in Peterborough”.
Then there’s the nickname for the city: “the deep south of the north”. There’s the surprise shown when it’s discovered a Black woman has a university education. And what about the store that carries racist ceramic caricatures and sees nothing wrong with it?
And the woman from India who found Peterborough so racist that she had to leave, and the high school student who was so traumatized by the racism at his school, he also had to leave, both the school and the city.
But these incidents only fuel Magumbe’s desire to live in Peterborough, Ontario, and add her voice and actions to make it a better place. With her bright smile and bold heart, she has taken on the role of resisting racism where ever it arises.
“Personally I love Peterborough, but it has so much work to do as far as being an inclusive city,” said Magumbe, chair of the Community and Race Relations Committee (CRRC) in Peterborough, in a recent interview.
The city has a visible minority population of only 3% compared to 19% in the rest of Ontario.
“We have a long way to go.”
“People are uninformed in general when talking about racism,” she said. “They just want to say everything is okay, and there’s no such thing, or ‘I don’t see colour’. We have a long way to go,” said Magumbe.
In 2010, she was asked to join the board of Peterborough’s CRRC, and then became its chairperson, a position she still holds, because she feels there is need for education about racism in the city — and the need to break negative stereotypes around people of colour and aboriginals.
The CRRC’s objectives include advocating for the investigation of incidents of racism in the city and taking an advocacy role in the resolution of a conflict of a racial nature, such as supporting someone at the Human Rights Tribunal. It also provides training to employers and personnel of public and private institutions on anti-racism and race relations. It partners with other agencies, and maintains a collection of resource material.
Black History Month in February, Asian Heritage Month in May, National Aboriginal History Month in June and International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Nov. 25, and various anti-racism workshops, discussion panels, and letter-writing are some of the CRRC’s annual events.
With Jesus as her role model and ‘Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You’ as her life motto, her Christian faith, as well as the desire to see her five children grow up in a better society, has played a large role in Magumbe’s social justice work, she said.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she came to Toronto at age four with her parents and three siblings where her father worked nights for CN Rail and her mother worked in the day time as a hair dresser for many years. Growing up in an all-white lower-middle income neighbourhood, she said she did not experience racism and played on the streets “as one big happy family”.
As an active Christian in high school, Magumbe became involved in the school’s evangelical group, “always trying to win people over to a cause,” she laughs. Later at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, where she obtained a degree in psychology, social justice issues became important to her, too.
Peterborough area had the highest rate of hate crimes
reported by police in 2011 among the country’s
33 largest urban centres, according to Statistics Canada
Her interest in those issues has gradually evolved from that time, she said, and continues to evolve, even now.
Laurentian was also where she met her future husband, Lionel Magumbe, an international student from Zimbabwe, whom she married in 1991. Their first child was born in Sudbury, and then they relocated to Zimbabwe and stayed for seven years.
Life in Zimbabwe was good. In 1992 when they first lived there, it was safe and warm, with English as the spoken language, she said. Lionel worked as a metallurgist and Charmaine concentrated on raising their growing family. Three more children were born there.
“When I got there, I realised it’s a really beautiful place. The people are beautiful. I didn’t experience anything negative. They are all into family and community. I felt that much more than here.”
In fact, she credits its social norms with teaching her how to raise her children. They hold their babies close physically, don’t let them cry, breast-feed in the open for a minimum of 18 months, and share the family bed. There were no highchairs or play pens.
“As a result, the kids are very quiet, they feel so secure, and respectful to elders. I was glad to learn that, so I raised my kids in the Zimbabwean way.”
By 1998 the actions of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and subsequent violence compelled the family to rethink their decision to live there. They returned to Sudbury in January, 1999 where their fifth child was born and spent another five years there.
They moved to Peterborough when Lionel was hired by SGS Environmental Services in Lakefield. They divorced in 2010.
Magumbe says she grew up knowing little about black history in a household where racism was rarely discussed, and she does not know much about her African roots and the Jamaican slave trade. She wanted it to be different for her own children.
She has given them a strong sense of African identity and pride in their African heritage. All their names are Zimbabwean, for example — Paida, Shamiso, Chiedza, Vimbai and Shingai.
“Because of that they are better equipped to deal with the covert and overt racism. They’ve had it in their face, but I think they’re better prepared for it because they know who they are as a black person.”
Now, at age 51, with her children mostly grown, she has found more time to devote to her causes. She’s less evangelical now when it comes to religion compared to her teen years, but still attends church regularly and her faith still guides her daily as she connects its beliefs to social justice.
Canadian racialized men made 77.9 cents for every dollar that non-racialized men earned. Racialized women earned 55.6 cents for every dollar non-racialized men earned.
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
She said she sometimes experiences a feeling of uneasiness in Peterborough in various groups — “sometimes if I walk into a room, I can feel like they’re just not used to a Black person. It’s not a bad, bad thing, but you just know” — but at CRRC she felt at home from the beginning.
“I felt I could feel safe and be heard. I felt like I could let my hair down.”
In 2014, she felt the need to organize Black Lives Matter Nogojiwanong (Peterborough) and has since organized three BLM peace vigils.
The movement, which campaigns against violence and systemic racism toward black people, began in 2013 in the United States after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. BLM became further known for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two more African Americans, Michael Brown and Erin Garner.
On July 17, 2014, Garner died in New York City after a New York Police Department officer put him in what has been described as a choke hold for about 15 to 19 seconds while arresting him.
“It pained me to read about Eric Garner, just to see it and read it. They were treating him like a slave, not even a human being,” said Magumbe”
Charmaine took up the BLM cause in Peterborough – “to educate about treating people equally and humanely, not like an animal because of your skin colour.”
“We need to make this a fairer world.”
The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president was “devastating”, she said.
“I was so disappointed in the American people that they had chosen someone like that, overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, and he doesn’t even hide it. He doesn’t care.”
Outside of her crusading, Magumbe plays violin in the Kawartha Strings and Kawartha Community Orchestra; enjoys square dancing and African dancing; and last fall organized and performed in the very first Just Laugh Peterborough Improv Comedy. She runs two of her own businesses — the Percolator publication, and the Kawartha Homestay Programme, which places international students in host families.
So what needs to be done?
“I would like to see a better retention of newcomers in Peterborough. It starts from the top with the people in municipal government working towards it. I don’t think they are even half way trying,” said Magumbe.
“Inclusion brings a richer society. If there was more diversity there would be more jobs created. It would fill our schools, which are now closing. We have to try to do what we need to do to bring more people in.”
But Magumbe does see improvements. She points to the case of Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board trustee Gordon Gilchrist who was accused of disparaging a First Nations drumming performance at a high school opening last May. Gilchrist, 87, was previously censured by the school board in 2008 for remarks he made about his views on immigration in a letter to the local newspaper. That’s as far as it went that time. Last June, Gilchrist was again censured — and this time public opinion led him to resign.
“So people took action, and said we’ve had enough,” said Magumbe.
“Social justice is about standing up to people in power,” she said, earnestly, “and saying what you’re doing is not right. It’s bringing about changes that make the world a better place. We need to make this a fairer world.”