Gwen Madiba: Welcome to uOttaKnow, a University of Ottawa podcast featuring our extraordinary alumni in enlightening, inspiring and entertaining conversations.
Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and a proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences. I am also the president of the Equal Chance Foundation, an organization that celebrates Black women and communities across Canada.
In this fifth season of uOttaKnow, we will be discussing curiosity. How does it drive us to ask new questions, explore new areas of interest and move forward into the unknown?
Our guests will explore what curiosity means to them, what it brings to them and how it spices up their lives.
Today, we welcome Balarama Holness, an activist, social entrepreneur and former defensive back for the Montreal Alouettes, with whom he won the Grey Cup in 2010. A graduate of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education and Faculty of Health Sciences, Mr. Holness is also a former member of the Gee-Gees football and track teams.
After attending the University of Ottawa, he went on to the University of New Brunswick, where he received a Master’s in Education, and then to McGill University, where he received a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Civil Law.
As a community organizer and activist, he encourages the civic community to get involved in issues such as systemic racism, justice, equity and inclusion. A founder of the municipal political party Mouvement Montréal, he recently ran for mayor of Montreal.
His memoir, Eyes on the Horizon: My Journey Toward Justice, will be published in English by HarperCollins Canada in March. Balarama, thanks for joining us today from Montreal. We’ve talked a few times, in different settings, over the past few years, and it’s always nice to talk to you.
Balarama Holness: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.
Gwen: I want to start off with a question that we will be asking all our guests this season as a way to set the stage. What does curiosity mean to you?
Balarama: Curiosity is the ability to be vulnerable and to attempt to discover yourself and the world. If my book were to have been given another title, I think it could have been called Curiosity, because I go on these adventures where sometimes I fall into traps, sometimes I succeed, but it's my curiosity, and my vulnerability, knowing that you can fail or you can trip up, but you just keep going. Curiosity is not just about blindly trying to find or discover things, but it’s also about being vulnerable and having a sense of … kind of like a young boy always trying to discover the world and himself.
Gwen: You’re talking about your book, and our discussion comes at a very special time, because your memoir, Eyes on the Horizon: My Journey Toward Justice, will be published early next month. In your book, you tell the story of a man of mixed race, born of a Jamaican father and a Quebec mother, who spent his childhood in an ashram in West Virginia and then returned to Montreal.
You also talk about racism, which you sought to fight throughout your youth, in the city where you lived and in Canada in general. It is a story of courage and determination in the struggle for justice and change.
Writing is a particularly solitary activity, and your book tells a deeply intimate story. Soon, those words you put on paper, your personal story, will be revealed to the world. How are you feeling right now?
Balarama: There’s no doubt that when you open up, whether it’s about personal things, family things or things that you don’t necessarily want to share with the world, it’s hard. But, when I wrote the book, it was really for myself and my daughter, Bella Angelique, to whom I dedicated it.
When I wrote it, I wasn’t necessarily aware that people or the world might one day read it. It was really something I wanted to leave to my daughter.
All that to say that when people read it, I think that, as a good Quebecer, they will be surprised, or as a good Franco-Ontarian, surprised to see how I’m so vulnerable in the book and that I don't only show where I’ve succeeded in life, but also where I’ve failed, and the challenges that I’ve faced.
Gwen: I would now like to focus on the chapter entitled “Saved by Football,” which appears halfway through the book. You tell us that you started studying at the University of Ottawa after you were recruited by Denis Piché, the coach of the football team. This is an incredible story, and I was moved to read later that he even became your guardian angel.
Can you tell us a little more about that?
Balarama: Of course. My father, brother, mother and several of my football coaches were all my guardian angels. The reason I called that chapter “Saved by Football” is because football literally saved my life. And, Denis Piché, who recruited me, appeared almost like an eagle out of the sky to pluck me from my couch at my father’s house and bring me to the Gee-Gees. There were definitely some positive influences in Montreal, but also a lot of negative ones, and he was really someone who radically changed my life by trusting me and literally taking me off my couch at my dad’s house and sending me to the Gee-Gees.
For me, he is someone who — and coaches, in general — who is extremely important in young people's life paths. If there were more people like Coach Piché and other coaches in our communities, I think we would see more success stories like mine.
Gwen: What an incredible story it is. You talk about the importance of coaches. This is something I see every day in my work at the Equal Chance Foundation, where we work with many young people signed up for sports teams, football teams, and whose coaches become very important figures in their personal development, for their future, but also for them today.
This is a particularly poignant story because, as you may already know, Denis Piché has returned to the University of Ottawa football program and is working to recruit the next generation of university athletes.
Balarama: Also, if I can ever help with, oh, not to get into politics, but we have that Bill 96. So, I think it’s going to be even easier for coaches in Ottawa, and across Canada, to recruit young people, because they’re going to be able to study in the language of their choice at the University of Ottawa, in French or English.
At the end of the 2006 season, which ended with the Gee-Gees winning the Yates Cup — Bravo! — at the Ontario championships, you decided to take on a new challenge, with the idea of one day making it to the Canadian Football League. And to get yourself into even better shape, you took a chance and joined the Gee-Gees track and field team, led by Glenroy Gilbert, a University of Ottawa graduate and Olympic gold medallist in the 4 x 100 metre relay.
What a big change! You went from a team sport par excellence to an individual discipline. I’d love to hear from you about this and how your life as an athlete has shaped the activist and leader you are off the field.
Balarama: In my book, I talk about a transition, I think, that is pretty important. At the beginning, you talked about curiosity, that when we write a memoir, we learn a lot about ourselves. When you’re curious about yourself, you learn a lot. What was very clear to me was that activism, being an activist, is not an individual sport, it’s a group sport, but throughout my life, throughout my youth, as well as during my athletic endeavours, individuality has been something that I have always valued. It’s because that's how I overcame all the challenges I faced in my childhood.
What I’ve learned over time is that activism is a lot more like football than the 4 x 100 metres, because you have to be able to mobilize people from all walks of life, you need a community to ensure you achieve your goals. That’s how I really connected football and my community and political life. There’s a lot more connection between the two than we think and I talk about that in my book.
Gwen: When you left the University of Ottawa with a degree in education and health sciences, you continued your studies. Now, you have a total of five degrees. In your memoir, you focus on the power and importance of education as a means of encouraging marginalized and racialized communities. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.
Balarama: I suppose I could have written a chapter saying that I was saved by education. For example, Coach Piché will always tell us that we’re students before athletes, the student part is more important. The University of Ottawa allowed me to really focus on education.
It was really during my first or second term at the University of Ottawa. I was in a class and I asked the professor why racialized people were not included in his curriculum. He replied that it was because it was not studied. I felt that people who looked like me were not represented in the curriculum.
Also, I began to wonder why racialized people were underrepresented in parliament, but overrepresented, for example, in prisons? Why am I not represented in the curriculum at the university? Why was it so easy for the teacher to tell me “Because you are not studied”?
Education came in a way where I could rebel in a positive fashion against things in society that I thought were unequal or unjust.
The fact that I have five degrees is not necessarily a reflection of my intelligence, for example, but rather of my curiosity and rebellious nature to say that you can’t marginalize us in the curriculum, in Parliament, in the economic, political, cultural spheres. I intend to use education to rebel against what I see as injustices.
That’s why I’m still involved in education. Right now I’m studying to be called to the Ontario Bar and so to this day, at the age of 39, I’m still here, with my books in hand, continuing the journey and the academic and educational rebellion.
Gwen: Your book is full of important milestones in your life as an activist, political actor and community organizer. We could talk about that. There is a good reason your book’s subtitle is My Journey Towards Justice. This quest for justice is a subject that I’m also passionate about and that motivates me every day. When you wrote your book, I assume that you had the opportunity to reflect on how your work has impacted your life.
Can you tell us about a change you were able to bring about, that affected you the most?
Balarama: That’s a very good question, and as an activist and community worker, I always question the impact that we have. Certainly in terms of the work that I’ve done, I could name a list of changes, but when we still see, for example, people who are in prison, who shouldn’t be there, who are literally being killed by guards — this happened a week ago — we question ourselves about our work.
The issue with systemic racism, and racism and violence, and oppression, towards racialized people is that it seems like we’re always creating protective castles, but there are always atomic bombs falling on communities. We ask ourselves: Do the castles or the changes we make have a real impact? It’s hard to say.
Because, for example, if we work on rights and freedoms, and we want to make sure that the police stop racial profiling, then we work on it for a decade, then there is a study that comes out and says that the SPVM, for example, the Montreal police service, profiling is still there, and Indigenous women are 11 times more likely to be stopped; racialized people, four to five times more likely to be stopped, we ask ourselves, does our work have a real impact?
I think as activists, we have to be really humble in the face of success or things that affect us, because there is still so much injustice out there. That’s why I jumped into politics, once again, to rebel, to say, “Enough is enough,” but I’m not giving myself any trophies, with the work I’ve done, because we still see injustice.
That's why in my book I don’t call it a destination, because it’s a journey. The journey is a life-long journey. We hope, at the end of our days, that there will be a little more equality and justice, but every time we see the police detaining a homeless person, giving them a ticket, knowing that they’ve no place to live, nothing to eat and that mental illness is rampant in homeless communities, we think, “What good am I really doing with my work?” All this to say that there is still work to be done.
Gwen: I saw that you dedicated your memoir to your daughter, Bella Angelica Holness, who is very young. As you were working on this book over the past two years, what were your thoughts on the world in which you want her to grow up and on her generation in general?
Balarama: Even before she was born, years before, I always talked about the next generation when I gave speeches. I think the next generation, that’s what gives me hope, because you see the youth, they’re curious, they want to see change — whether it’s changes with respect to climate change or racial issues or other challenges on our planet. That gives me hope.
It is important for us to continue the work of Viola Desmond; the civil rights movement both in the United States or here in Canada; all the work that is being done with missing and murdered Indigenous women and the Indigenous communities that are involved with it. It’s important for us to make sure that the next generation will have a foundation on which they can work.
That is why I would agree strongly that there are going to be challenges for the next generation, but it is up to us to make sure that they have a foundation or can they have a, as they say, a launch pad, to make sure that they can succeed. To quote Martin Luther King, I say in my book: “To bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.” Again, that’s why the work goes on.
Gwen: Let me ask you one last question that I’ve been asking all my guests this season, which is on the topic of curiosity. What is something that currently sparks your curiosity? It can be anything. Something you’re not familiar with but want to learn more about.
Balarama: What I find fascinating, when you think about it, you can get on a plane and you can land anywhere in the world. To Australia, Nepal, you can go anywhere. I was and still am very curious to discover the world. I’ve been to 15 different countries around the world: Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, China, Oman, Costa Rica, all over the world, Turkey.
I’m still very curious about discovering different cultures and people, whether it be their religion, food, lifestyles, customs, traditions, martial arts, arts. It’s as simple as that. I feel that the world is open to all. When I think of Montreal, Montreal is really a microcosm and a reflection of that whole world, and that’s why I love my city. I’m in love with Montreal. It pushes me to go out and discover the world and to keep adventuring in life.
Gwen: Balarama, I’m sure that after today, many people will want to follow you on social media, so could you tell us and our listeners where they can find you online?
Balarama: You can find me on balaramaholness.com, that’s my website. Also on all social media — LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — Balarama Holness.
Gwen: Thank you so much for being on the show and allowing the University of Ottawa community to learn a little more about you. I’m really looking forward to the publication of your book in March. I wish you nothing but success with it, and I’m delighted to be part of the promotion of this powerful and wonderful book.
Balarama: Thank you so much.
Gwen: uOttaKnow is brought to you by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. It is produced by Rhea Laube, with university graduate Idris Lawal providing the soundtrack. This episode was recorded with the support of Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded.
For a transcript of this episode in English and French, or to find out more about uOttaKnow, see the episode description. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to the uOttaKnow podcast, tell us what you think and share it on your social networks.