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Friday, July 12, 2024
Activist ends brief hunger strike at Black cemetery
James Russell spent Monday night chained to the plaque at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground. (SOMER SLOBODIAN)

James Russell says he’ll be back with a ‘bigger and louder’ protest


Activist James Russell abruptly ended his hunger strike at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground after just one day despite town council not meeting his demands.

But he says he is planning a large “peaceful but loud” protest on June 17 that will start at the burial ground, march down Mississagua Street and finish along Queen Street.

His goal is to force the town to uncover and restore long-buried gravestones at the cemetery.  

He left NOTL before 6 p.m. on Tuesday citing family concerns back home in Toronto and wasn’t able to watch the council’s evening committee meeting live. 

“I did hear that I failed,” he said Wednesday, noting Coun. Maria Mavridis, who backs his efforts, had hoped to have council pass a motion supporting his cause.

He called the decision “disgraceful” especially since he felt his brief hunger strike received a lot of support from people.

Mavridis said she would have needed a two-thirds majority vote for the motion to pass.

“I would not have gotten the support if I brought a motion,” she said.

She was also informed by chief administrator Marnie Cluckie that the town needs to go through the Bereavement Authority of Ontario before doing work on the cemetery, something she wasn’t aware of, she said.

Russell emailed Mavridis thanking her for her support and she told him she’ll stay on top of it.

Cluckie told The Lake Report on Tuesday morning that Russell and the town both have the same objectives. 

But Russell contends he and the town are nowhere “near each other in terms of goals.”

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mavridis requested a “clear update” from Cluckie, who outlined the entire process beginning with the time Russell came before council in March 2022.

At that time he asked the town to assist in locating the graves at the burial ground and offered to pay for a ground penetrating radar search to see how many graves there are. 

She described how the town staff worked hard with Russell to ensure the proper steps were taken.  

Cluckie wrapped up by discussing the project’s status with the Friends of the Forgotten, an independent citizen committee working to create a memorial landscape at the burial ground.

She also said the results of a stage one archeological assessment will be ready soon. 

Council took no action Tuesday and will wait for the results.

Russell, 76, chained himself to the plaque at the burial ground at noon on Monday and invited media to witness his protest. 

He locked a 10-pound gold chain to his wrist and secured it to the plaque. 

“It’s the heaviest chain I could buy on Amazon,” he said. 

He said he hoped that, by staging the hunger strike, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake would agree to unearth and restore headstones he believes are buried at the historic Black cemetery. 

“I want the town to do the right thing, to restore the names to the folks, to the Black Canadian settlers who are buried here,” he said. 

Russell is well-known for his restoration efforts at the burial ground, on Mississagua Street near Mary Street.

He’s been advocating to unearth the headstones since 2022, when the town allowed him to search the site using ground penetrating radar.

That search showed there could be 28 graves and 19 buried headstones on the property.

Russell estimated it would cost about $59,000 to unearth and restore the headstones.

“My end goal is to restore respect to the folks and convince the town to allocate the $59,000 and do the right thing, for God’s sakes,” he said Wednesday morning. 

When he launched his protest Monday, Russell said he planned to sit on the property around the clock, with no food, until Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa and the town agreed to his demands. 

On Monday night, Russell said he slept in his chair and used blankets to keep himself warm. He said he saw four skunks on the property overnight.

He was joined by resident Yvonne Bredow, who led a Black Lives Matter rally through NOTL in 2020. She spent the night there.

Russell claims the town purposefully buried headstones in the past and that it’s the town’s responsibility to unearth and cover the costs of restoring them. The town denies intentionally burying the stone markers.

Bredow said the town should “do their due diligence and find the money” to restore the headstones, without using tax dollars.

Zalepa told The Lake Report the town has been successful in the past when it came to privately funded projects, like the ordnance boundary stone restoration project.

“We’re a little community” without the resources of a big municipality, he said.

Zalepa showed up Monday evening after hearing Russell was requesting to speak with him personally.

Russell said the mayor stayed for about 45 minutes and said what he’s asking for is not in the budget.

“There are no funds in the town’s operating budget to maintain the old cemeteries that we have,” Zalepa told The Lake Report.

He said the town is working with the Friends of the Forgotten committee to raise money for the burial ground’s restoration.

“We feel long term that that’s the path forward,” said Zalepa.

Cluckie said the town doesn’t yet know what the cost will be.

Earlier on Monday, Kevin Turcotte, the town’s manager of parks and recreation, visited and spoke with Russell.

Turcotte took some notes and told him he’d pass the information along to his supervisor, said Russell.

Many people visited him Monday, some bringing him drinks and blankets to help get him through the night.

Former lord mayor Betty Disero stopped by late Monday night to make sure he had a flashlight.

All he brought with him is a duffel bag filled with foil blankets and portable phone chargers, two large water bottles and a book. 

To pass the time, he planned to read “To Have and Have Not,” by Ernest Hemingway. 

Asked if he was scared, he alluded to those buried on the property. “These folks were scared and I owe it to them.”

On Monday, George Webber, head of the Friends of the Forgotten committee, watched Russell from the sidewalk as he started his protest.

“I think he’s refusing to understand the dynamics involved. I mean, this is a process,” Webber told The Lake Report.

“The town’s not in a position to make any decisions on what he is requesting. He knows that. But he’s leaving that out,” he said. 

The town needs to go with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario and other bodies before any work can be done at the site, said Cluckie.

Webber is worried the protest will confuse the community, but wants to be clear that Russell has not been part of the Friends of the Forgotten since October.

Russell said he doesn’t plan to stop with the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground.

Other sites where he believes Black settlers are buried, like 240 Centre St. and McNab Cemetery, are still on his radar, and he says both are a “work in progress.”

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