Taijon Graham first stepped foot in North Bay as a 16-year-old hoping to capture an OFSAA championship.
“When I was in grade 11, the city and Nipissing University were hosting Triple-A OFSAA basketball and I remember asking ‘where is North Bay?’ I’ve never heard of this place. We stayed from Sunday to Wednesday because we made it to the consolation finals, and I remember thinking ‘I’m probably never coming back here again.”’
Famous last words for the Scarborough native who enrolled at Nipissing University two years later and is soaking up the post-secondary experience.
“I’m enjoying everything about it,” he says. “I’m getting lots of opportunities and I’ve really enjoyed the fact that I got to start this club.”
That club is NUBASE, Nipissing University Black Association for Student Expression. Graham says after George Floyd’s murder last year (The New York Times: The Killing of George Floyd) they needed a space to express what they were feeling.
“We decided that enough is enough and it’s time to take action. I just feel like we are at a point in our history where people are starting to listen. The biggest thing about what the pandemic did was it gave people the time to finally listen and see what people have been going through and what issues people have been trying to bring awareness to,” he says.
“The university didn’t put out a statement until eight days after George Floyd was murdered and we didn’t think the statement was very well put together.
"One of the excerpts was, “While the issue of racism is top of mind, we are also reminded that this month is Pride month and National Indigenous History month.” We thought to ourselves ‘what does this have to do with anything that just happened?’ What does it have to do with George Floyd being murdered or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. The university in their statement, don’t even mention the word black. So after that, one of our co-Vice Presidents Shandon Ashitei started to say that ‘this is unacceptable’ and once that got out there, people started to come forward from current students, Black and White, and alumni came forward saying ‘this is ridiculous.’”
Graham says he talked to the captains on the basketball team, looking to provide a supportive network for Black students on the campus.
“Looking at the landscape of the university there wasn’t anything like that either on the campus or even in the North Bay community. We decided to go through the necessary process to start a club and we become an official club as of the 29th of January. We just want to create that opportunity for Black students to have a platform or have a place that you can be around people that look like you or talk about issues with people that might know what you’re going through. In the bigger picture, it’s more so about educating people on Black culture and trying to bring the community together and do more positive things,” says Graham.
The club is also looking to branch out and bring together students from universities across Canada.
“The biggest goal we have is trying to create one big non-profit organization that ties in all the schools across the country so that we can network and promote campaigns together under one big umbrella,” he says. “We’ve been working alongside a couple of people to try and make this happen such as former CFL player Corey Grant who is the offensive coordinator for the McMaster Marauders football team as well as Lee Anna Osei, who is the basketball coach at St. Francis Xavier University and they have a grassroots program called the Black Canadian Coaches Association.”
Throughout November, NU Base and NUSU led a social media campaign to highlight and promote significant contributions from Black Canadians including Dr. Desmand Anthony who was one of the original six members who came to North Bay to start Nipissing University College and Graham says, “he was super influential for the North Bay community and it was humbling to make his video.”
Graham is a hard-working student who, on top of playing for the Lakers basketball team, is also majoring in Psychology with two minors in Legal Studies and Entrepreneurship.
“I’ve always been interested in how the mind works and why people act the way they act. How they react to certain situations and what triggers them, finding out the background of why they act the way they do has always fascinated me,” says Graham, who adds his interest in Legal Studies stems from his childhood.
“When I was a kid my mom was always watching shows like Judge Judy and Judge Mathis and she told me she wanted to be a lawyer but never pursued it. So that started my interest and then in my last year of high school I took Criminology and I ended up doing really well in the course, and last year in my first year at Nipissing I took it as an elective and decided to make that my minor.”
That wasn’t the only influence on his education that his parents had. From a young age, Graham says his parents were adamant that he prioritize getting a good education.
“When you’re Black you have to work twice as hard just to be equal,” says Graham. “My dad was always making me read and do math books, even in the summer, and I just didn’t get it, but I get it now. He would say ‘you already have a strike against you because you’re Black. Don’t make your lack of education be another reason for people to overlook you.”
Graham says he and other Lakers Athletes have been asked to do presentations in area schools about being post-secondary student-athletes as well as bringing up the subject of why it’s important that everyone talks about what he calls, ‘uncomfortable but necessary discussions.’
“When we did a presentation, we talked about the discrepancies between growing up White versus growing up Black. Black parents must reinforce it into their kids some things that White parents might never even have to think about. My parents would tell me even before I could get a license that if I ever get pulled over while driving, or if I’m asked to stop by police for anything, make sure my hands are visible, don’t talk back or raise your voice or do anything that they could take being aggressive in any way. I remember my dad telling me this kind of stuff from the age of seven. White people don’t have to constantly have that conversation with their kids,” he says.
He continues, “The most important thing that people need to see is that racism is still a huge problem. I’ve had people tell me that in North Bay they’ve gone to a bar or a club and have been called the N-word or people have waved a confederate flag at them. I made a video where I said, ‘people have to come to the uncomfortable reality that racism still exists and it exists here, in Canada, it’s not just the United States.’’
Graham says with everything that happened this past summer, the silver lining was these conversations that begin to take shape.
He says, “It was very humbling and satisfying to finally see those protests that were peaceful and also see that it wasn’t just Black people that were marching and taking part, it was White people too. It was nice to see both sides coming together and raising that issue and supporting each other. I feel like we’re finally starting to listen to each other in some ways and it feels good to be able to share experiences and have people realize what we have been going through.”
Graham has also been given a platform to speak about these issues through the Lakers LockerRoom Podcast, which was already established by two former Lakers Athletes (Men’s Hockey Player Harrison Harper and Men’s Soccer Player Mathieu Simard).
“After the George Floyd stuff happened I said, ‘it would be great to dedicate an episode to talking about the Black Lives Matter movement,’” says Graham.
“NUSU (Nipissing University Student Union) loved the idea but both Harper and Simard were graduating. But they were looking for a replacement and asked if I wanted to do it. I was unsure at first, so I called my teammate Jason Little and we had actually floated the idea of just doing our own podcast ourselves, so he was all over this opportunity.”
Graham and Little started recording in November of 2020 and since then have featured a number of their fellow Lakers athletes as well as the Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota and a special panel for International Women’s Day which included athletes from the Lakers women’s soccer, volleyball, basketball and hockey teams.
“It’s a space where we can talk about our experiences and give our thoughts and opinions on everything going on in the world right now,” says Graham.
“I am super appreciative of all the opportunities I’m getting while I’m here. I feel I’ve grown a lot since I’ve come to Nipissing University. I was very quiet when I first came here and if you told me last year that I would be hosting a podcast and starting a club, I never would have believed it. I think one of the biggest things that has helped is that I have so many options after basketball. My first year was just really class and basketball, and I would still love to turn pro, but now I know that if that doesn’t happen there are other options, and especially this past year has shown that.”