This Canada Day was rough. In recent years, especially since Canada 150, there’s been an increased awareness when it comes to the experience of Indigenous people in Canada. For most Indigenous people, Canada Day and Canada on a whole are sources of anger and pain, and rightfully so. Canada was created at the expense of Indigenous people; they lost their land, language, culture and identity in the forming of this country.
At the same time, I’m a first generation Canadian born to immigrant parents who moved to Canada from the island of Barbados in 1975 with $500 Barbadian dollars to their name in pursuit of a better life. It was always my father’s dream to move here. He talked about it and planned for it for two years before coming here. Two months into his new life in Canada he found a job which he kept for 34 years until he retired. That job allowed him to eventually buy a house in the suburbs outside of Toronto and provide for his family.
There were times when my sister and I would hit certain milestones, like graduating from college or university, and I could see in his eyes that he was proud of his decision to move here and the life he was able to provide us. My father absolutely loved Canada; I mean LOVED it (he passed away in 2018). Even when we’d go on family trips back to Barbados, eventually he’d be eager to get back home to Toronto. He really became Canadian.
What do you do with that? On one side of the coin, you see the experience of Indigenous people, but you also see the sacrifices your parents made, leaving everything behind to start a new life in a different country. You see the fact that they’re happy and thankful they made the decision to move here, and I’m equally thankful that they did.
I’ve been very critical of and disgusted with racism in Canada and people of colour not being able to ascend to decision making positions in the workforce. I’ve written about my frustrations with feeling invisible as a Black man in Canada. But there’s still no other country I’d rather be living in right now despite Canada’s imperfections.
This is why this Canada Day I got a little defensive with some people on social media. I felt like I was being asked to invalidate my parents’ sacrifices and whatever we’re thankful for in order to validate my allyship to Indigenous people. One at the expense of the other. I had enough of people telling me I had no right to be thankful for my parents’ decision to come here. I saw comments from some Indigenous people basically saying that my parents’ experience in this country had no merit. Not a thing. Forty-five years of hard work, literal tears, and more sacrifices than I’ll ever know, down the drain.
Does being an ally of Indigenous people mean that I have to disregard my parents’ sacrifices and everything our family is thankful for? Why can’t I love Canada, despite its faults, while at the same time acknowledging that we’ve mistreated our Indigenous people and need to do better? Why does it have to be an “either-or” thing? Both are true. Canada has done some things well and in other ways it has failed miserably.
What is allyship, really?
If you chose to celebrate Canada Day, the assumption is that you’re not an ally or lack perspective or education on the Indigenous experience. For some people that’s the case, but that’s not the case for everyone. The reality is you can simply have a different perspective that comes from your own personal experience and that should be okay.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve engaged in respectful dialogue with Indigenous people. I’ve chimed in with my perspective when I felt it added to the conversation, but other than that I’ve tried to shut up and listen. I’ve opened up SHIFTER’s platform to Indigenous writers although we’re more so a Black culture magazine; partly because I myself needed to learn after realizing I didn’t fully understand. In my radio and TV interviews I’ve repeatedly mentioned the struggle of Indigenous people whenever I could.
Then yesterday when I chose to post a Canada Day message around 7pm after a full day of deliberation, my allyship was questioned. Others questioned my Blackness and basically called me a coon and a puppet for white people. To have both my allyship and Blackness questioned for simply respecting my parents’ sacrifices and being thankful for our family’s experience in Canada is ridiculous. When we start telling people they aren’t Black enough or they haven’t met certain standards of allyship, this is the first step in losing allies and turning them into enemies.
Let’s agree to disagree
I always say that a mature society isn’t one where we all believe the same thing. It’s where we’re free to believe different things while still choosing to live together in peace. What we need to realize is that even after mature dialogue, education and the sharing of perspectives, it’s still possible to not agree. That in itself is the beauty of Canada; there’s no dictator holding a gun to our heads telling us how to think.
For many people, a sign that you’ve heard them is that you now agree with every single thing they have to say, and that’s how we measure allyship, but that’s not true. That’s a part of being human beings. God has given us all the gift of free will and the ability to reason for ourselves. We’re all free to think our own thoughts, come to our own conclusions, and have our own convictions. That’s what makes human beings different from robots. To assume that your convictions need to become everyone else’s convictions is arrogant and controlling, and that arrogance can be seen at all points on the political spectrum.
The knock people have with religious institutions is their tendency to impose their beliefs and values on others and convert people to their way of thinking. As I’ve been analyzing the ultra-left woke crowd over the past few weeks I see the exact same tendency. Some of the very things they hate about religion are the things they replicate.
Whether it’s from ultra-religious people or ultra-woke people, nobody wants to feel like they’re consistently being beaten over their head with someone else’s beliefs. I’m all for being educated, but educating people with the goal of converting them to your way of thinking is manipulation and indoctrination. Educating people and allowing them, armed with information, to come to their own conclusions, whether you agree with them or not, is empowerment.
With every push to “educate” and “re-educate” me, I started to feel like someone in need of being policed, fixed, coerced, and indoctrinated into a particular belief system, instead of a human being who is allowed to think for himself and have his own unique perspective and experience.
Back in 2003, when I became a Christian, that environment didn’t always promote critical thinking and having your own opinions. I was constantly told what to think and believe which led to an identity crisis. It was only eight years ago when I finally got free and got the courage to be my own person and think for myself, so to feel like people were trying to put me back in a position of not being allowed to think for myself and to be subservient to their beliefs and convictions triggered me and made me lash out. Nevertheless, responding defensively isn’t the right way to respond, especially on sensitive issues.
At the end of the day, education and enlightenment are a process. Nobody graduates from university in one day; it takes time. Could it be possible that one day I can get to the point where I’m so educated and enlightened that I no longer celebrate Canada Day, despite what it means to me as the child of immigrants? Of course, anything is possible. Some of the views I have today are different than the views I had a few years ago, and some of the views I’ll have in two years will be different than the views I have today. But we need to allow the process of education and enlightenment to run its course instead of forcing people to do so on your timetable, and if in the end they never do, that’s their choice as human beings.
So going forward, I will be celebrating Canada Day while at the same time being aware that the good aspects of what my family has experienced hasn’t been the same for everybody. I’ll educate my kids on their unique family experience here in Canada, but also the experiences of others. My participation in Canada Day is never to slap Indigenous people in the face, but to celebrate my parents’ sacrifices as immigrants and everything we as a family have to be thankful for.
Nobody has the right to invalidate or discredit my family’s immigrant experience in Canada the same way nobody has the right to invalidate or discredit the experiences of our Indigenous people. That’s what you call mutual respect – each party’s views, perspectives, and convictions are respected and have weight and value. If I’m in a relationship with someone and the expectation is that only their perspectives and experiences have merit and I’m expected to deny mine, that’s not real dialogue. That’s a one-sided relationship and I’m not interested in those.
We should always aim to be open to conversation, seeing eye-to-eye, and reaching a common ground, but in cases where we simply can’t, we need to just agree to disagree and respect each other’s differences in the process.