Balarama Holness Wants to Be the ‘Canadian Obama’ | #students | #parents


MONTREAL — For Balarama Holness, the defining moment of his life happened four years before he was born. It was at a Bob Marley concert in Montreal, when the eyes of his Québécois mother and his Jamaican father interlocked as the singer wailed, “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!”

It was the final year of the freewheeling 1970s, and his adventurous Francophone mother and ascetic Anglophone father were strangers in a sprawling hockey arena. But Mr. Holness said barriers of language and race momentarily collapsed as the Marley anthem washed over the crowd — a rare alchemy that he said he had spent his whole life chasing.

“The music dissolved fictitious divisions in society,” Mr. Holness said, “and somewhere between the dreadlocks, the Jamaican patois and Québécois French, the seeds of my existence were sowed, along with my future as a rebel.”

Educator, broadcaster, law student and former championship-winning professional Canadian football player, Mr. Holness, 36, aspires to be a “Canadian Obama” — another “biracial lawyer,” he observes, who cut his teeth as a community organizer. His other role model is Colin Kaepernick, the Black quarterback whose kneeling during the American national anthem before N.F.L. games became a potent symbol against racial and social injustice.

When he began his quest to fight systemic racism, Mr. Holness recalled, some Quebecers vilified him and accused him of “playing the victim,” while some veteran activists dismissed him as a cocky upstart. But he said the global uprising for Black rights spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis had elevated his own voice and ambitions.

“The abuse of power has plagued brown and Black people, and we have had enough,” Mr. Holness said.

His own egalitarian spirit took hold early, after his parents separated and his mother took him and his baby twin brother to live in a Hindu ashram in West Virginia. He ate communal meals, meditated daily and said he had little consciousness of his ethnicity or skin color.

He said his tenacity was honed at age 9, when he entered the ashram’s dome-like sweat lodge, where members went to pray, and suddenly found himself in total darkness, frightened, panicked and unable to breathe. “I realized for the first time I could harness my mind to master my fear,” he said.

But his idyllic world was turned upside down at age 10, when his mother moved them from the ashram to a predominantly white suburban neighborhood of Montreal. His mother opened a dance studio, but the family struggled financially. He was reunited with his bookish father, who had renounced material goods and devoted himself full time to a Hindu temple.

Mr. Holness recalled that he was eager to fit in. But at his underfunded Francophone public high school, his skin color derailed that plan.

“One boy asked me, ‘Why do you have mud on your face?’ Another called me the N-word,’” he said. “For the first time I realized I was different — a brown kid with curly hair, a vegetarian with a funny name.”

He added: “One of my teachers even gave me a new name to try and assimilate me: ‘Steven.’ I was too white to be accepted by the Black students and too Black to be accepted by the white students.”

“It represented all I had overcome,” he said.

But after a series of injuries, he decided to leave professional sports and become a teacher. Devastated after his mother died in 2013 from a viral illness at age 57, he went on the road for two years, living for a time in China.

After a stint as a teacher, he applied for law school at McGill, Canada’s most prestigious university, and during his first year as a student there, he ran for mayor of Montreal North, one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

After losing the election, he accused his left-leaning political party of using nonwhite candidates for public relations but not giving them adequate support to win elections. Some critics called him a sore loser.

Unbowed, he then took up the cause of fighting systemic racism, though he said that getting Quebecers to acknowledge it was challenging because Canada’s mostly white Francophone minority viewed “multiculturalism as a threat to their own culture and identity.”

Now, he is considering a run for mayor of Montreal and then national politics.

“My ultimate goal,” he said, “is for society to be a place just like that concert back in 1979. I’m a dreamer like my mother.”



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