Why being born in Canada didn’t make me “Canadian”
Original version published on June 30 2017 in CBC Radio’s Up Close series documenting stories from women of to commemorate Canada 150th Anniversary of independence.
My experience of being -Canadian is about the hyphen. The thing that implies duality, diversity and connection.
I was born in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. I grew up in the 90s in Malvern community, a former at-risk/priority neighbourhood in northeast Scarborough. I went to an elementary school with mostly kids of colour. I also went to a very diverse high school, where my three best friends were Trinidadian, Filipino, and Tamil. Even though we were born here, we knew we were hyphenated Canadians. Being Canadian for us was always an addition. As a kid, I remember noticing that all my friends were people of colour, but it was hard to spot commercials with people of colour in them between episodes of our favourite cartoons. I was really young when I realized that people of colour were an afterthought for mainstream Canadian culture.
I was born in Canada, but I was always asked where I was from from other kids in school. My identity, therefore, became one of explaining my tangled lineage. I was and am proud of my Trinidadian, Bajan and Dominican heritage. I know my lineage is one of diaspora travelling from place to place. Some of my ancestors’ travels were by choice and others by force. I know I am mixed race — African, Indigenous/Arawak, and White blood all runs in my veins. I remember once being told by a Somalian friend in high school, “Oh, I thought you were an African. You look Ethiopian.” I remember thinking, but am I not African diaspora? Because I’m definitely not really a Canadian… I realized then then that Afro-Caribbean people were also an afterthought for many continental Africans.
I entered York University’s Environmental Studies & International Development program when I was 19 years old. I chose this Bachelor’s degree only because it didn’t require me to take Grade 12 biology, chemistry, or algebra. I was one of those kids whose guidance counsellor discouraged from science and math.
When I entered York, I remember being told by my first year humanities instructor, “I would like for us to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations communities and we would like to honour them here today.” Until that point, I had never been taught or even had a clue to acknowledge and respect the First Nations communities that called “our land” home for thousands of years. Until that day, my summary of Canadian history was The Hudson Bay Company, Vimy Ridge, and global peacekeeping efforts. And hockey. I came to understand that cultural identity is the soup that we are in and that we are fed every day. It was then that I realized that the education system I grew up in fed me a Canadian history from an uncritical and colonial lens.
Since graduating from York, I began working in International Development field. In 2013, I became Youth Entrepreneurship Advisor with CUSO international, where I developed and facilitated business development, micro finance and business plan workshops for youth in Roseau, Dominica. There, I met a young man who wanted to start a car detailing business, but who could not secure a loan from the bank. His family did not own property and he did not have community support as a guarantor for a small loan. I remember him telling me, “There is no opportunity for me here. If only I could get off this island.” He wanted to come to Canada for other opportunities, but he couldn’t get an entry visa. While my Canadian citizenship plus my privilege of financial stability meant I did not need a visa permission to enter Dominica, a youth born in Dominica, differing from me only in social status means and place of birth, did not have the same freedom of movement as I did. My Canadian citizenship provided me a seriously real privilege: my passport guaranteed for me an opening of international life opportunities.
As an African-Canadian, I always dreamed about my first trip to Africa. So when I first got the opportunity to visit Accra, Ghana, for a Women’s Entrepreneurship Advisor position with Crossroads International in 2016, I was overcome with excitement. I would be the first to “go back to Africa” in my family for generations. My own personal identity had been missing a puzzle piece, and I yearned for an authentic African experience.
Once I arrived in Accra, I began working with HIV/Aids Peer Educators (Obrapa Women’s Group) on an arts-entrepreneurship program. I introduced myself as being a Canadian, from African descent via the Caribbean. Due to their level of education, none of the women had ever heard of Trinidad, Barbados or Dominica before. Once I explained that Rihanna was from Barbados, they were like “Oh! So that’s why you are so light-skinned!”
I was taken aback — there are so many people of different hues of the African diaspora living outside of Africa that they didn’t know about. But they themselves didn’t identify as simply “African”; they were from tribes found in Ghana: Gaa, Akan, Ashanti and Fante and more. Their identities were wrapped tightly in their tribes language, which they spoke amongst each other, which I couldn’t understand. Many of them knew more than one tribal language. I only know English, and enough French to get me through a day in Montreal.
In an attempt to create a space of inclusion for me, they named me Sister Abena. “Abena” means Tuesday, the day of the week on which I was born. To tease me, one of the women said “Ahh yes, welcome Sister Obroni!” Obroni means white person, or foreigner. No matter what, I came from away and looked like it — I stuck out. It was then that I realized then that I might indeed an African-Canadian, and not an African alone. Since I don’t know where exactly in Africa my family is from, and because I don’t have a tribe, I didn’t feel like I truly fit in.
Being Black-Canadian/African-Canadian/Caribbean-Canadian indeed has its challenges, and its privileges. My identity is about the hyphen, and I’ve realized it is mine to define and to claim. However, having a Canadian passport and being born here in Toronto doesn’t mean I get to fit in here all the time either. For example, I am currently doing my masters at OCAD University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation program. I am one of a handful people of colour in my cohort, and one of only two black people in a group of about 25 students. In our Understanding Systems course we talked about “Requisite Variety” (a fancier way of saying diversity) of group members who are conceptualizing visual representations of systems in order to ensure that marginalized perspectives are accounted for. I recognized that the handful of us might just be that required diversity for the entire cohort. And this troubled me because although I am a woman of colour, I am *no where near* the most marginalized experience of being black in Canada, and I should not be relied upon to speak to any collective perspective of black people (a super diverse group!).
Given that Canada has branded itself as a multicultural country for so long, so many people don’t need to to give up where they are from to consider themselves as Canadian. AND at the end of the day in the Americas we are *on stolen land*. Canada is a colonial project, and I am gratefully acknowledging the attempts that institutions are making to indigenize and decolonize (even if they don’t really know where to start, and they have A LOT of work to do).
So, being “-Canadian” as my identity marker now means whatever I want it to mean. The hyphen for me represents the building of a bridge; a space for me to determine my post-colonial African diaspora story, one life experience at a time.