In Canada, we like to think that we are totally accepting and open with everyone. All colours, creeds and religions are welcome in Canada.
I recently read B. Denham Jolly’s memoir, In The Black: My Life and came to see a side of Canada that I’d rather was comfortably in the past.
Jolly was born in Jamaica in 1935 – in 1955, he came to Canada for the first time for school. He writes about a Canada where people smile at him but throw his resume in the garbage, where he wasn’t allowed to socialize in certain places, where even when he had paid back a student loan in full, he wasn’t eligible for another one, where schools hadn’t officially desegregated until 1954 and bad feelings lingered.
Once he finished school, he had to return to Jamaica – when he had first come to Canada, he had to sign a form saying that after he finished school, he would go home, that he wouldn’t try and stay in Canada. Jolly enjoyed his time in Canada, had built a life for himself in Toronto and wanted to stay. The reason why there were so few black people in Canada is because there were unofficial policies in place limiting the number of black people allowed to immigrate. Despite his education and his standing within the community, Jolly was shown the door.
Eventually he made it back to Canada and he was ready to start his life. He was a teacher in a small community where he met his wife – together they had three children. Jolly also set up a nursing home business, eventually owning a number of properties. And he was incredibly active within the black community, working with other activists to ensure that black Canadians were heard, that their contributions were valued and most of all, that they were given the same opportunities as white Canadians.
In The Black was an eye opening read for me. It challenged me to think of Canada in a different way. We like to think that we are better than other countries, notably our neighbours to the south, when it comes to race relations. Jolly’s experiences (and he opens the book with a run in with police that happened when he was in his 70s) illustrate that we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have.
Although Jolly sees that we have come a long way, he posits that there is still more work to be done. That even as an old man, who has lived in Canada for more than 50 years, who is very much Canadian, he is still seen as a Jamaican immigrant. As he writes about the work that has already been done, he urges young Canadians to keep working towards a better future, to recognize that the work isn’t finished.
I think this book will challenge a lot of Canadians. But it’s an important book, a reminder of where we were, where we are and where we could be. In The Black includes the history of one man, of a community demanding more, of a country trying to be better.
We can still be better.