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As a child, I thought everybody non-white in Canada was from elsewhere. As an adult, I understand elsewhere is just as valid a way to live

September 26, 2021

By Globe and Mail |

Ian Williams is the author of Reproduction, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. His latest book is Disorientation: The Experience of Being Black in the World, from which this essay is adapted.

As a nine-year-old, I had the bizarre perception that all Canadian adults were white but kids could come in multiple shades. This was in Brampton, a suburb-turned-city northwest of Toronto. My family was new to the country. Back then, in the late 1980s, teachers, librarians, salespeople in department stores, bank tellers, bus drivers, catalogue models, every employed adult with the exception of church people – white. In Trinidad, everyone from our politicians to police officers, bankers to bakers, shared a physical familiarity with me; I was never disoriented or displaced by one racial group dominating another.

I crept toward a pernicious logical conclusion. Everybody non-white in Canada had to be from elsewhere, therefore everybody non-white had less claim to the country. Everyone non-white should defer. There wasn’t a thought to people preceding white settlers, Canada’s Indigenous people, apart from a spiritless unit on the Inuit in elementary school. They were swept aside with the same temporal irrelevance as dinosaurs. Extinct. What would become of the rest of us? Would our parents grow extinct? Would they go “back home” as they threatened – or perhaps dreamt? Maybe my non-white friends themselves would grow into white people.

Apart from the white blanket, there was an ideological covering over Canada. Canadians wore modesty – genuine in its insecurity but false in its self-chastisement – as a protective identity, especially when it came to Americans. We played the part of America’s younger, polite, simple-minded, hockey-playing sibling. Too innocent for racial awareness, let alone discrimination. Canadian innocence persists, to a degree, to the present. This positioning of moral superiority over Americans shuts down dialogue about Canada’s own discriminatory practices against numerous ethnicities. So humbleproud are we of our beloved status internationally that we uphold the Multiculturalism Act, the inclusion of POC, as a domain where we finally beat the Americans at something. But everything that is possible in the U.S. is possible in Canada. Shootings. Poor Black areas. Suspicious looks at Black bodies. Kids streamed into technical futures instead of academic ones. It’s all here.

My family moved when I was in middle school to a more affordable area of the city, meaning more diverse. Those streets had kids from everywhere. Indian kids, Pakistani kids, Vietnamese, Chinese, Black kids from across the Caribbean (not too many Africans and fewer African-Americans), immigrant white kids from Italy, Portugal, Poland, waspy white kids, mixed kids, phenotypically unidentifiable kids. The baseball or street hockey teams resembled a future-friendly multicultural world. We were a drawing of diversity.

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