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Secret revealed: hunger strike wasn’t what it seemed to be

James Russell is not giving up — in fact he is broadening the scope of his work.
Yvonne Bredow, who kept James Russell company through the night of his hunger strike, reveals he unchained himself, spent some time in his car, and went to Tim Hortons for breakfast before chaining himself back to the plaque at the Negro Burial Ground

When about a dozen supporters showed up at the site of the Negro Burial Ground to support Toronto resident James Russell’s promised 500-person march onto Queen Street on June 18, among the absent were two women who advised Russell and helped with his plans. 

The Local reached out to Sherri Darlene of Niagara Falls last week. Darlene is the woman who organized a successful and well-attended June 2020 Justice 4 Black Lives protest in the city of Niagara Falls. It was held in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

When Darlene heard about Russell’s sit-in hunger strike in April, she paid him a visit to find out more about his push to have the gravestones of
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s early black settlers excavated from the cemetery grounds. 

The activist and racism educator told The Local that a family emergency in Buffalo was what kept her away from the planned protest last Sunday. At the time she spoke to The Local, Darlene said she knew very little about the tepid turnout for the rally.

“I had full intentions of going to support James,” Darlene said. “Even though I feel it’s in vain. Based on what I’ve seen, the town is not going to comply with James. They have moved forward with this other group (The Friends of the Forgotten) and I don’t think they’re going to dig up the stones. I’d like to see it done, but I think we have to pick our battles here.”

She added that she wasn’t surprised to hear that the plans for the march had fizzled out.

“This was really new ground for James,” she said. “He had a lot of great ideas, but they were very large. He had no idea how to facilitate something like that. I tried to explain that I didn’t do all the things that he was doing, like applying for permits, chartering buses. I didn’t do any of that for my rally.”

Darlene went on to affirm that she admires Russell’s passion for the cause, but feels that it would be better served if he worked along with the Friends of the Forgotten, because that’s who the town seems willing to work with.

“It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of the situation,” she added. “I would have liked to have seen James work with them, instead of demanding a whole separate thing, which we know is not going to happen.”

Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Yvonne Bredow was also part of a WhatsApp chat through which Russell shared his plans with her and Darlene. Bredow also had experience organizing a protest rally, attracting more than 400 people to a peaceful anti-racism demonstration in NOTL just days apart from Darlene’s Niagara Falls event. 

Similarly to Darlene, Bredow had heard of Russell’s hunger strike in April and went to the cemetery to give him support, even deciding to accompany him for what turned out to be only an overnight stay at the historic heritage site, after making a show of setting up a chair, chaining himself to the plaque on the site, and saying only his wife had the combination.

Bredow dropped a bombshell when she spoke to The Local. 

“His hunger strike wasn’t a hunger strike,” she said. “He said his wife was the only one who had the combination to the lock. He had the combination. He opened the lock and we sat in the car and warmed up overnight.

“He went and got food at Tim Hortons in the morning too. That ruined any credibility he had in my mind. He said it was just our secret. If I hadn’t stayed that night, I would never have known.”

Nevertheless, when Russell cut short his planned week-long stay at the burial ground after only 30 hours, Bredow joined Darlene on the group chat to offer advice in his planning for the Father’s Day rally. 

“But something just never sat right with me after that,” added Bredow. “He dropped off a stack of flyers, and I think I only put one up. I just couldn’t do it. And once I found out that the Stage One (archeological assessment) had been completed, I didn’t think the march was needed.” 

Bredow opened the chain of messages on her cell and read her text to Russell, sent June 7.

“After careful consideration and finding out that council has completed the first stage of getting the ball rolling and making progress, I really don’t see the need for a march, so I am bowing out gracefully. They are making progress, and it can’t happen overnight. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavours,” said her message.

Russell replied by saying, “thank you very much for letting us know.”

The Local reached out to Russell Monday and informed him of Bredow’s allegations. The line went quiet for a short period of time. 

“All those things are true,” Russell admitted about Bredow’s allegations. “But I’m wondering why she would go public with this now. I can’t offer any excuses as to why I sat in the car, or why I ended up having a breakfast sandwich at 7:00 in the morning, after 48 hours of not eating solid food. I don’t really know what to say.”

He seemed genuinely concerned that her revelation would mar Bredow’s reputation as much as it would his own. 

“I don’t want to make her look bad,” said Russell. “I don’t care what people think about me. And she never mentioned any of this when she bailed out on the march, either.”

Russell remains disappointed with the turnout for the march, and though he has no concrete plans to return to NOTL soon, he is broadening the scope of his efforts, as reported by The Local last week. 

“I have 124 letters ready to go to every MPP in Ontario,” he said. “I just incorporated the Canadian Unmarked Graves Project, and I will turn that into a non-profit. We are going to identify and catalogue all the unmarked graves across Ontario.”

“It will include Indigenous graves, the military, every unmarked grave,” he promised. “There will be an interactive website and a map. Each dot will be clickable, and it will tell you who was buried there. If we don’t know who was buried there, it will still be marked, but as unknown.”

For her part, Bredow concluded, “I believe in a lot of the things he wants done. I just don’t agree with the way he is doing them.”

Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
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