“Why’s your skin so dark?”
— an eight-year-old boy from small town Ontario at the Canadian National Comic Book Exposition, 2003.
When a little White boy asked me why my skin was so dark at my comic-con table, I wasn’t ready for it at all. As a Mississauga kid, I knew diversity. I knew a public aware of all the races, never dreaming of a situation where people wouldn’t know about people who didn’t look like them.
But that also meant that I grew up in a bubble, thinking the Greater Toronto Area a reflection of how things worked across the country instead of seeing it for what it is—one big Canadian anomaly.
Many Torontonians make the same mistake (after all, being steps away from an international airport makes cheap trips to the Caribbean far more alluring than costly domestic travel), but I wanted to show my kids more of the country than I’d ever seen myself. In those journeys, I realised something:
This country is white as hell.
And, Toronto? This might come as a shock to you.
Yes, we have Black people in Canada. No, they’re not LOST.
For a long time, people were surprised we have Black people in Canada, sure it was a country full of White people living in igloos and travelling by dogsled through a wintry tundra.
And they weren’t entirely wrong.
But before Drake came along and showed the world a different side of what a Canadian looked like, there were always Canadians who’d run online to our country’s defence, telling everyone that they’d be stunned if they knew how diverse our country was. We have representation from every corner of the world. Canada embraces people and weaves them into a cultural mosaic instead of having them assimilate as the United States does.
And their hearts were in the right place—if you look at our urban centres like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, this is indeed the case, as vast proportions of our BIPOC population calls urban Canada home. But it doesn’t take much travelling outside of those metropolitan hubs to understand just how homogeneous the rest of our country is.
Canada’s Diversity by the Numbers.
All it takes is a quick look at some stats to know how diverse our country isn’t:
- Of the 9.985 million square kilometres that make Canada what it is, only about twenty per cent of it is inhabitable, so that’s approximately 1.997 million square kilometres.
- And in those 1.997M km² live 35,151,728 Canadians (90% of whom live within 100 miles of the Canada-US border, just FYI), and 22.3% of those identify as visible minorities—7,674,580 people
- But of those 7,674,580 people, nearly 90% live in a total area of 45,141.5 km²—or about 2.26% of all the inhabited land in Canada.
Simply put, the number of diverse faces that aren’t White are very concentrated in this country. We have vast swaths of land where you might not see a visible minority at all, and diversity’s probably measured by your hair colour or by where your family goes to church on Sundays.
And I guess that’s one of the reasons why Canada can feel at times like it’s just a little bit racist.
Canada. It’s a Bit More Racist Than You Think!
Looking back at the years of Live from the 3.5 that came before, a common theme connecting us was our shared experience of dealing with racism from the rest of the country at one point or another.
I heard the stories often. How my grandmother came here in the ’60s, and White people would spit in her face, angrily saying that “the nigger [should] get off the train” while riding the subway. Or the racist barriers my parents had to overcome to get taken seriously in their lives, the world around them already having a preconceived notion of who they were supposed to be.
No—living in one of the most diverse cities in the world doesn’t automatically make it a racial paradise. Yes, every other person’s a visible minority, and yes, you’ll find more cultures represented here than anywhere else in the country. Still, just because we have faces from every place you could imagine, it doesn’t make us all equal.
Tolerance, after all, isn’t quite the same as acceptance.
We’re Comfortable with Multiculturalism. Sometimes a Little TOO Comfortable.
We’ve built a city where we’re sometimes a little too comfortable with multiculturalism, saying things in our diverse circles of friends that we never would if we didn’t know them.
You’d hear stuff like this all the time:
“I don’t need to talk about racism—I have Black friends!”
“That wasn’t racist—everybody laughed.”
“I live in Toronto—I can’t be racist!”
And it’s sad—we convinced ourselves it was possible because we were all good at getting along, but what we failed to realise is that we were nurturing a very casual form of racism.
The Subtle Chill of Canadian Racism
In cases like American slavery, South African Apartheid and the German Holocaust, the racism is overt. One group targeting another with disastrous results. But the story of the Black Canadian’s a little different, and not dissimilar to Black experiences in the United Kingdom, either. (Which should come as no surprise since the British had a direct hand in building the country we know today.)
I think filmmaker Destiny Ekaragha put it well in They’ve Gotta Have Us‘ third episode:
“America has its problems—I mean, America’s extremely racist. But their racism is so upfront—they can fight it. You can fight what you can see. Through struggle and strife and all that kind of stuff… comes the arts. And so, through that, they’ve created just slightly more opportunities. The racism here is slightly more insidious because we almost pretend like racism never existed. That’s why we’re finding it so difficult to progress.”
And it’s true—until we were old enough to know better, cultural stereotypes were just part of how we related to each other, perhaps not understanding that we were doing more harm than good by thinking that way.
But casual or no, racism is racism, and our kids shouldn’t have to code-switch and take it lying down to gain acceptance. The generations who came before us wanted more for us than that—it’s about time we do what we can to make things right.
And this is only a taste.
Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Things get so much worse the farther you get from our metropolitan centres, whether it’s place names using “Nigger” to commemorate the lives of Black people associated with the site, or Black Canadians who’d forever be remembered by that same hateful epithet, no matter how many times they told people to stop.
Yes, our demographics shifted since the Immigration Act of 1976, but it’s not easy to distinguish who’s on board with that change from those who pine for the “good ol’ days” just by looking at people. If Canada truly wants to embrace diversity, it’s time for all of us to talk, no matter how uncomfortable the conversations might get in the process.
But my fellow Black Canadians—it’s easy to point fingers at the other 96.5% and the issues we have with them… but we’re not so perfect ourselves. So for the next post, I’m looking at what it’s like to be a minority within our community with “The Trouble with Tokenism—No, I’m NOT What You Expected”, where I’ll speak candidly about my life growing up and how it shaped who I am today.
Thanks for reading, though, and let’s not get too complacent with our fellow Canadians—not all racism is malicious, but none of it is helpful.
Thank you, and until the next, I remain,
Want more from Live from the 3.5? Check out the other posts here!