An Outsider Inside
A review of Visitor: My Life in Canada, by Anthony Stewart
Anthony Stewart writes that, from childhood, he has seen himself as a visitor to his home and native land—yes, this one—because he is black. Left out of the national conversation, not represented in national culture, not part of the baseline perception of what a member of his country looks like. A visitor, not a member.
“All you need to do,” he writes in Visitor: My Life in Canada, “is spend some time in a room of black scholars in Canada and bring up the word ‘multiculturalism’ and listen for the ensuing derisive laughter.”
Stewart, one of those black scholars, a 50-year-old Canadian-born son of Jamaican immigrants who is now a professor of English at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, is of course right. The claim that Canada is a country of full-blown, successful multiculturalism is, while not hollow, certainly iffy, and we are long past due for an examination of what we have actually pulled off—supposedly the country’s proudest achievement since the end of the Second World War.
Bernard Ostry, the late federal civil servant who wrote Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s multicultural policy in 1971, argued just before his death in 2006 that a royal commission was needed to examine multiculturalism’s impact.
In Stewart’s view, Canadians simply have not accomplished what so many boast of having accomplished. He says: “The country I have inhabited … takes credit for a level of openmindedness that far exceeds its reality. It’s a Canada whose citizens passively lay claim to welcoming difference while staying silent when those around them who are different are disenfranchised, dehumanized, undervalued and left to feel that we do not belong in the country in which many of us were born, or about which we are told tales of tolerance.”
He writes of a political power structure whose skin is still white. He writes of a mainstream news media that behave as if the country is white. He says: “As of this writing, the staff of regular columnists at the Globe and Mail looks like the result of an embargo on non-white columnists. One cannot imagine the New York Times [whose executive editor is black] or the Washington Post looking like this.” He writes of academic diversity in Canada more honoured in the breach than in the observance. He recalls at the outset of his academic career telling a friend how much he looked forward to being a role model for the black students he would be teaching—not realizing how few black students he would actually teach in his undergraduate classes or graduate seminars.
I get his last point.
I am a white, Anglo male of a certain age much of whose time is spent in a university community. Each year, the percentage of women in my undergraduate classes climbs; for the last two years, it has been 95 percent. Each year the young people I teach arrive bearing fewer and fewer Anglo-Celtic surnames with Caucasian skins—a total of just eight last term in a class of 50. I think: “This is great. The university is looking more and more like the country.” Each year, increasing numbers of students come into my classroom who are of East European, South and Central American, South Asian, Chinese and Middle East descent.
But year after year after year, either no black faces or at most one or two are looking back at me when I begin my first lecture, although they account for 10 percent of the Greater Toronto population, substantially higher in suburbs such as Ajax, Pickering and Brampton. There is an ethnic smorgasbord of tens of thousands of young people walking the streets and pathways of the University of Toronto’s three campuses, but a disproportionately small share of them are black. A young black woman lawyer at a Bay Street firm laments to me one evening in theatrical mock despair, “No one where I work looks like me.” I am not sure how much of her despair is mock.
Canada’s largest city has a black underclass side by side with a growing immigrant underclass. The Toronto Star, to its credit, has waged a years-long campaign against racial profiling—read “black profiling”—by police forces in the Greater Toronto region. But what about black profiling in the minds of its inhabitants? In multicultural Toronto, when we read “murder” in our newspapers, we more often than not think “black” when we read “Jane-Finch” or “Scarborough” neighbourhoods in our newspapers, we think “black violence,” “black gangs,” “black criminality,” “black poverty,” “black dystopia.” Upward of 50 percent of male inmates in Toronto’s jails are black. The black male unemployment rate in Toronto is maybe five times the white male unemployment rate. The median income rate for black men is 30 percent lower than the median income rate for white men. The sole demographic group clearly identified as having blunted social mobility in Canada are young black males (young South Asian females score the highest rates of social mobility as they whiz up the socioeconomic ladders of success).
Canadian multiculturalism preaches colour-blindness. The dark twist to that heartwarming national mantra, writes Stewart, is that race does not get talked about. The racialization of Canada winds up hidden, muted, gagged beneath garlands of flowers as we laud our diversity. Living in a purportedly colour-blind country means whites are free not to have to think about their skin colour because most of the country—and certainly the country’s political, economic and other institutional elites—looks like them. Stewart has to think about his skin colour every day—“leading me back to thinking,” he writes, “about how rarely advantage and privilege are discussed in Canada.”
Or as he puts it, neatly: “Once a country succeeds in getting others to accept its intentions to do good as the good itself, then there is no longer any incentive at all to bring the good into being.” We are the global heroes of multiculturalism; the gap between what we claim and what exists ceases to be important. “To be able to take credit or to be benignly self-congratulatory about the openness of one’s society without actually doing anything to bring that openness into being is privilege.”
The effect of this lack of discussion in Canadian public life of a subject that people [in other societies] have been talking about for generations … is to confirm the members/visitors relationship I’m discussing. It also serves as an example of the unstated effects on Canadians who would like to be able to feel like they belong in Canada but who often feel like they live in a place that only turns its mind to them when issues assumed to directly relate to them (usually immigration or crime) draw the nation’s attention.
Stewart says that being black is probably the most important aspect of his identity. And yet the proponents for colour-blindness ask that he ignore this part of who he is for the benefit of those who are not like him in terms of their ethnocultural heritage but who are made uncomfortable by his. Conversely, I go through each day 100 percent sure of my Canadian identity, talking about my Canadian palatal raising of the ou-dipthong—my “out” and “about”—and never having to think about being white.
“I am willing to wager,” writes Stewart, “that the perceptual baseline for the term ‘Canadian’ will not soon be first-born sons of Jamaican immigrants … Colour-blindness, then, requires that I not draw to the attention of others the ways in which my experience of living in Canada has differed from theirs—for better and for worse—because of my racialized personal history. Perhaps more importantly, colour-blindness requires that I not point out how my story of Canada differs from that which many Canadians tell themselves.”
Having eloquently argued that the imagined community in Canada is not black—and does not appear particularly interested in including blacks (or at this point in its history anyone else, really, who is not white)—Stewart might have contributed all his remaining literary energies to exploring why this is so and what are the possible remedies. In fact, he does not ignore causes and fixes but he does wander down some paths that are fuzzy.
He argues, for example, that blacks are better off in an American melting pot model than in the Canadian multicultural mosaic model. “The mosaic is a static, finite and therefore predictable model, the melting pot is dynamic, roiling, and as a result unpredictable,” he writes. “The difference matters, because the mosaic implies a clearer sense of hierarchy and, more importantly, of limitation. It installs some in the secondary role of visitor while leaving the perception and priority of the mosaic’s overall design for members to determine, to see and to benefit from.”
In fact, both melting pot and mosaic are largely fictions, dreamed up by politicians on either side of the border for their own objectives. Integration rates are the same in both countries and direct comparisons between ethnic minority groups in Canada and the United States are flawed. Leaving aside Hispanic immigrants, the majority of whom in both countries are refugees, the bulk of immigration to the United States took place between 1850 and the early 1920s, whereas in Canada the big wave has arrived since the end of the Second World War, meaning that our ethnic communities are more “distinct” and, thus, mosaic-like because they have not been here as long. Moreover, Canadians’ sense of transcendent national identity is likely not as strong as Americans’.
Nonetheless, there is some weight to this discourse; it is just hard to sort out. Twenty years ago I attended a concert at Palmerston Avenue Public School—my son’s elementary school in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood—where a little girl wearing a hijab came on stage and recited The Cremation of Sam McGhee. How much more melting pot can you get than that? What is she today, I wonder: a member of Canada or a visitor, integrated or relegated to the margin of “other”?
A couple of summers ago I conducted a focus group with university students in their twenties, all of whom were immigrant or first-generation and strongly tied to their cultural identities (one Iranian-Canadian woman said she was not comfortable dating anyone other than an Iranian). They were asked to talk about their sense of collectivity as Canadians, which they found impossible to do because they had none. Neither do most millennials I know, regardless of ethnic origin or depth of roots in the country. But my focus group viewed multiculturalism as getting in the way of their entry into mainstream Canadian society because it hives them into ethnic groups hidden behind (as one student said) old men who become self-appointed community spokespersons.
That is more or less the Anthony Stewart view, but it is still rather a curious conclusion for them to arrive at. The rhetoric of multiculturalism in fact has oiled their path into mainstream Canadian society, helping them to avoid the label of cultural “other.” (I should add that the focus group contained no black students.)
What I am saying is that the debate over mosaic or melting pot does not take us anywhere.
Stewart argues that over his 50 years in Canada “I’ve also seen very little change, in real terms, in how Canada looks as a nation and—more importantly—sounds as a culture.” Perception is important, because over the same period I have wondered what Canada really does sound like as a culture. Certainly less and less like WASPs such as me.
He says that, as a black, he has “never been able to look to Canadian politics for … inspiration.” That is oddly dismissive of people such as Lincoln Alexander (first black member of Parliament, federal cabinet minister and popular lieutenant-governor of Ontario), Emery Barnes (British Columbia Lions star and speaker of the B.C. Legislature), Rosemary Brown (first black woman to be elected to a provincial legislature—B.C.’s—and first black woman to run for the leadership of a federal political party, finishing a strong second to Ed Broadbent at the NDP’s 1975 leadership convention), Alvin Curling (speaker of the Ontario legislature and subsequently Canadian ambassador to the Dominican Republic), Nova Scotia’s Rocky Jones (internationally known political activist in human rights, race and poverty), Georges Laraque (Montreal Canadiens star and former deputy leader of the federal Green Party), George Rogers (deputy speaker of the Alberta legislature and former mayor of Leduc), and many others.
It is important to Stewart—for several pages—how many Canadian Football League coaches and quarterbacks have been black, an argument whose significance I do not really follow but I am not a football fan. I do know that Michael Pinball Clemons, former head coach of the Toronto Argonauts, is one of the most popular professional athletes in Toronto’s history and I do know that more than 80 blacks are or have been players in the National Hockey League, the overwhelming majority of them Canadian, which I think is a meaningful comment on the country’s culture.
Stewart makes a useful argument on affirmative action that I would have liked to see him take further, namely that it is carried on all the time in the interests of maintaining dominant interests or stepping beyond simple meritocracy to represent broad community interests. For example, he recounts taking part in the search for a new dean of his faculty where the argument was made that, since the outgoing dean was a social scientist, the next dean should be from the humanities. “Whatever happened to the ‘best’ candidate?” asks Stewart. That decision—switching to a humanities scholar from a social scientist—was presented as “fair,” not “preferential,” Stewart continues, whereas affirmative action based on race is somehow seen as waging an assault on merit. So it all depends on who we are levelling the playing field for.
And the future? His young son, Stewart says, will eventually have to make sense of the same contradictions and hypocrisies that have resulted in his father never having felt “Canadian” during the five decades he lived in the country. Maybe, maybe not.
What is more likely is that Canada’s black community will not wait another generation to come in from the margins, and young Mr. Stewart 20 to 30 years hence will be telling his friends—of all colours—that his father helped drive the conversation toward Multiculturalism Mark 2: an end to self-satisfied boasting about what Canadians think their multiculturalism looks like and an awareness that racial and ethnic inequality does exist and needs to be remedied and that not all racial experiences in Canada are the same.
No culture is static.