Photo: Michael Toledano

Behind BLMTO: Pascale and Rodney Diverlus fight to make Toronto a home

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By Lidia Abraha

For most immigrants, home resembles a fond memory and sometimes, an unachievable reality. For Pascale and Rodney Diverlus, this where their passion stems when organizing for Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO).

Born in Haiti, the Diverlus family had to leave the country in 1999 due to an unstable political climate. Their father was also an activist at the time, which made the stakes for them even higher.

“When you’re dealing with activism in that kind of context, where it’s literally life or death, some things are hard to talk about,” Pascale said.

Since then the Diverlus family moved around from city to city for most of their life. They moved to Miami, Naples, Fl., and Hamilton before coming to Toronto.

“I think that being a freedom fighter seeking justice is a crucial part of the Haitian cultural identity,” said Rodney. “Haitians are often questioning the status quo, and our parents respect our work and sees value in the work that we’re doing.”

Their father was an activist in Haiti, a pillar of the community as a businessman and a church member. So Rodney and Pascale were cultivated in community building and activism since they were kids.

“I think being Haitian particularly, it’s literally in my blood. I literally feel it in my bones that I need to do something. When I see fuckery happen, my entire body is like ‘No. I need to do something,’” said Pascale.

Rodney described their immigrant journey as looking for a home that would finally accept them. Even though Toronto was their final stop, the feeling of home still eluded them.

“To be a migrant is to always be searching for your home, to always be unsettled,” said Rodney. “If you’re coming from the global south … the migration process is designed against you, designed for you to fail. It puts your livelihood on hold, [it] repeals your dignity, and really forces you to struggle.”

As immigrants, they have become used to fighting for a place to call home. Now, it has evolved in fighting for their right to exist in the world as Black people, which is rooted deeply into their identity.

Pascale was in her third year at Ryerson’s School of Journalism when the death of Michael Brown gave root to their organization. Michael Brown was an 18-year-old African-American male shot dead in the street by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Pascale said she cried when she heard his story, and remembered how everyone around her was also affected by the injustice.

Pascale and Rodney, also a graduate of Ryerson’s School of Performance, planned a vigil for Toronto community members in mourning. When they organized the Facebook event, it counted 30 people in attendance. But when officer Wilson was acquitted of his charges, the attendance jumped to nearly 3,000.

Both Pascale and Rodney said they had no idea about the kind of journey they were about to embark on, creating a movement that would revolutionize the fight for Black lives in the city.

“Everything kind of emerged organically,” said Rodney. “There were a lot of things that surprised us and one of the big things was the desire and thirst for community, for radical Black [organization] to happen.”

Rodney and Pascale have been helping to push the movement forward since 2014. Together they were able to shut down a highway, occupy one of the largest police departments in Canada, and disrupt one of the greatest Pride marches in the world.

Journalist and activist Desmond Cole has also noted the importance of BLMTO. He told the Toronto Star why he joined the protest to shut down Allen Rd. in 2015, “This is not about people being inconvenienced for one night on the highway. It’s about almost 30 years of police brutality against one community.”

The siblings said they have an “amazing team” working with them, but they also had each other. Pascale described her relationship with her brother like of Michael and Janet Jackson. An amazing duo that works to lift each other up, and call each other out when needed.

“We bicker like we’re 13. We call each other out for what it is, we’re very honest when we talk to each other,” said Rodney. “We realize we’re family above all. Our work doesn’t exist without family and love. Ultimately, we try to find alignment on things because that’s what family does.”

While both of them never envisioned themselves being freedom fighters, they also never thought of it as a choice. The call to action seemed spontaneous, and when it was time to step to the plate, Rodney and Pascale didn’t hesitate at the opportunity.

Pascale said her love for the Black community is all she needs to stay motivated. “I’m invested in [Black people] being able to flourish and thrive in all of these ways. I really feel that for this community. It’s impossible to do this without a genuine love for your community and for yourself. I know I deserve better, I know the generations after me deserve better, they deserve liberation.”

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