January 29, 2017 is a day that Canadians should remember. That day a man walked into an Islamic cultural centre and opened fire, killing 7 men and injuring 5 more. On that day 17 children lost their fathers. Let that number sink in…17 children lost their fathers. All this loss because those who were gathered to pray were Muslims. Some like to paint a different slant to the story by wondering aloud if this particular mosque is a breeding ground for extremist thought and violence, but let us not get sideswiped by the illusion of fear. Men were praying and they were targeted and murdered because they were Muslim. Their religious background, their skin tones, their Quran reading, their heads bowed to the floor, and their Arabic prayers were somehow labeled as being a threat to Canada, a threat to Canadians. Of course, the notion that because someone is different means they are a threat, unwelcome or not Canadian enough is wrapped up in a mix of xenophobia and racism; words that only gain traction and power when we let fear do all of the talking. Today’s blog post is dedicated to the families affected by this atrocious crime. These are men and women who, whether Canadian citizens or not, are a part of Canada and its time we acknowledge that there is room enough for everyone.
I missed #MLK2018 this year. I neglected to mark that special day as I do all other special days: with a facebook message. On Martin Luther King Day I generally google a timely quip from the Civil Rights hero. This year, however, rather than announce my fondness for quotes about justice and equality to my 500 closest friends on social media, I found myself spending time with my youngest child at Walmart. Emmanuel was born in October. He is a bundle of delight and he is black. Black like me, and Canadian like me.
On this particular day as I wandered the aisles in search of household basics I am stopped by an older couple. They smile and coo at the sight of a baby, “Isn’t he adorable!” they exclaim, but are not wise enough to stop the interaction there: in the safe zone. The door for conversation has been opened; their curiosity has been piqued and they ask without a thought, “where was he born?” I instinctively know they are not wondering in which Saskatchewan city he’s been born, rather they are asking me which country he was born in. I quickly reply: right here in Saskatoon at the Royal University Hospital, and before they have the chance to ask the next obvious question, I let them know that I, too, am Canadian born. Unfortunately my answer surprises them, they are taken aback and go as far as to congratulate us for being born Canadian. Their tone, their question, their eyes say it all, they can hardly believe a black woman and her black child were born here in their Canada? What a wonder.
These types of questions always raise my eyebrows, and at times quietly make me angry. Such as when I stood in line at the doctor’s office, 9 months pregnant, clearly tired and anxious to deliver, when a well meaning receptionist wonders aloud: “Which island were you born on?” Before you defend her, please note she is not referring to a Canadian island such as Manitoulin Island or Vancouver Island, she is wondering which Caribbean nation I have immigrated from. She suspects, along with my Walmart interrogators, that there is little chance that someone with my skin colour could declare: I am Canadian alongside all of those whose ancestors hail from white European nations. All of Canada has yet to recognize that our skin colour tells very little about our identity.
I remember when Michaelle Jean was announced as the Governor General of Canada in 2005. Michaelle Jean is a Haitian-born-Canadian, and when her name was announced I recall the bristling comments: “Why would Canada allow a non-Canadian to become its governor general?” People I had known for years joined in with this simplistic rhetoric that quietly stated, “Just look at her, of course she isn’t a ‘real’ Canadian.” Despite the insistence of many people that her citizenship and vast resume, and not her country-of-birth or skin colour, were the qualifiers that enabled her to be chosen as the Queen’s representative to Canadians, many wondered: is she Canadian enough?
My question to them, what about you?
There is an ice breaker game where individuals are given a sheet of paper with a list of get-to-know-you questions. The questions range from: find someone who has travelled to all 10 Canadian provinces to find someone who has ridden a camel. The notion behind the game is to get individuals in the room to sign their name beside the questions that best describe them. One particular day when I was playing this game, the questions included: find someone who is not born in Canada. Individuals generally rush towards people of colour, and on this occasion missed asking the individuals from Ukraine and England to sign their page. The assumption being that those who are Canadian must be white.
These encounters leave me wondering: What does a Canadian look like?
My brother, sister and I are first generation Canadians. Our parents are immigrants from Jamaica who are now proud citizens of this country with passports to prove it. Each of us have stories where our nationality has been questioned or assumed. We have all been asked the inevitable question: “Where are you REALLY from?” As though stating I am Canadian is unbelievable and insufficient. We grew up in Northern Ontario and were often reminded of the irony that our blackness made our citizenship suspect. Whiteness was the accepted reality of what a Canadian looked like, despite the reality that, apart from Indigenous Canadians, we all come from a heritage of immigration. This irony seems to gain a louder and more powerful voice as some of our American neighbours become more and more comfortable with the idea of white nationalism. A belief that America rightfully belongs to people of white European heritage, while the rest of its inhabitants ought to return to their countries of “origin.” Mixed in with this dangerous ideology is that white people belong with white people, black people with black people. and so forth. Unfortunately, this ideology is also gaining traction right here in the midst of our illusion of a Canadian-multicultural-utopia. While some may be too polite to say it out loud, people are unafraid to write such things behind the veil of a social media post. My daily newsfeed is frequented by posts that are not directly stating that true Canadians are white Canadians. Rather they are unafraid to declare that Canada is losing something fundamental and valuable by allowing people of colour, people of differing cultures and ethnicities, to identify as Canadians. That somehow diversity is making Canada less Canadian. This shift from acceptance of those who are different, to sensing our differences are threatening, is a dangerous trend. No matter how few these voices are, they can be loud and point us as a country towards fear rather than friendship.
As I walked through Walmart thinking about the man who questioned my sons identity, I recognized the challenge that is before my two black, Canadian boys.
The challenge to be accepted as a valuable part of Canada worthy of having their contributions celebrated.
The challenge to be considered and treated as an equal with Canadians who possess a white European background.
The challenge to defy those who will tell them they are not Canadian enough to belong, not Canadian enough to encounter this country without their loyalties being questioned.
A challenge to live out the dream of MLK that they would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
In the meantime, what does a Canadian look like?
As far as I can see, they look like you and they look like me.
Canadians have accents that hail from as far as Australia and Africa, to as near as Alaska and New York.
Canadians dress in ways similar to those who call India, Ecuador and France home.
Canadians are made up of those who have always called this home, to those who have just taken the citizenship oath moments ago.
Canadians speak French, English, Hindi, Italian, Finnish, Arabic and a multitude of diverse languages.
They are made up of people from around the world who have one thing in common: they have chosen the “true north, strong and free” to be the place they worship, the place they raise their children, the place they enjoy our valued freedom, the place they call home.
As we remember those who lost their lives because they were deemed, not Canadian enough, let us go out of our way to ensure that Canada does not become a breeding ground for the type of terrorism that draws lines of hate between you and me, between us and them, between our differences and our similarities.
We are all Canadian enough.