BOOKS

Black man's burden

A writer argues that Canadian racism is getting wors

DONNA NURSJ January 13 1997
BOOKS

Black man's burden

A writer argues that Canadian racism is getting wors

DONNA NURSJ January 13 1997

Black man's burden

BOOKS

A writer argues that Canadian racism is getting wors

In his home in Thornhill, on the outskirts of Toronto, Barbadian-Canadian writer Cecil Foster is attempting to subdue the exuberant antics of his three-year-old son, Mensah. The two play near the fireplace, where more than a dozen pint-sized trophies are lined up along the mantelpiece. They belong to Foster’s two older sons, 13-year-old Michello and 14-yearold Munyonzwe—recognition of their achievements in competitive swimming and soccer. These prizes, along with the boys’ courteous demeanor, suggest that they are confident, well-adjusted children, secure of their place in the community. Yet Foster wonders: “Will my children ever be accepted as fully Canadian?”

For Foster, 42, the question is answered by another: could one of his three sons ever become prime minister? The query is largely rhetorical. But in his new book, A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada (HarperCollins, 325 pages, $20), Foster argues that deeply entrenched— and growing—Canadian racism dampens even the most seemingly attainable dreams, effectively thwarting the sense of belonging of an entire community.

Foster, a former business journalist with two novels to his credit, offers a provocative synthesis of the personal and the political. Most of the book is devoted to the experiences of a broad crosssection of African-Canadians. The head of the Federal Court of Canada, Grenada-born Chief Justice Julius Isaac dismisses notions that his high-ranking position translates into significant influence for the black community. And Ontario Liberal MPP Alvin Curling wryly discusses his term as the lone black member of former premier David Peterson’s cabinet. Foster also takes readers inside the Toronto Jail to paint a uniquely humane portrait of Clinton Gayle, the Jamaican-born, Canadian-raised man convicted in the shooting death of local police officer Todd Baylis. The author sees the media’s fixation on Gayle’s Jamaican background as evidence of mainstream racist attitudes.

Foster’s opinion that racism is on the increase relies rather heavily upon personal opinion and observation—he includes numerous anecdotes about police harassment and education inequities—but minimally upon statistics. In addition, the book contains some inexplicably faulty editing. Yet despite these weaknesses, Foster presents a provocative argument that the situation for blacks in Canada has deteriorated. He devotes particular scrutiny to the situation in the Greater Toronto area, where—accord-

ing to a 1992 Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada study—more than three-quarters of the country’s roughly half a million black people reside, and where 83 per cent of them earn less than $25,000 a year.

As the ultimate destination for freedomseeking African-American slaves, Canada has always held a special place in the hearts of people of African descent. But Foster notes the emergence of a terrible double irony: not only has the image of Canada as a land of equity nearly disintegrated, but America—the very country once disparaged as the bastion of slavery—now provides greater opportunities for blacks of Caribbean descent, at least. Statistics place the earnings of Caribbeanborn males in the United States second only to that of white males. Foster further lists Americans of Caribbean heritage among the country’s leading political figures, including, most recently, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell (the son of Jamaicans). Powell’s overwhelming popularity suggests to Foster that the American electorate may well be ready to elect a black man as president.

Foster himself spent his early years in a poor neighborhood in Barbados, where he grew up the youngest of three boys. His grandmothers raised the brothers after their parents emigrated to England. He worked as a journalist before arriving in Canada in 1979, where he eventually landed positions at The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, and later became a senior editor at The Financial Post. His first novel, No Man in the House, appeared in 1991, and his second, Sleep On, Beloved, in 1994.

These days, Foster shares his views on current affairs as a columnist for The Toronto Star and, for the past year, as host of a talk show on Toronto’s biggest station, CFRB, where he frequently espouses ideas that irritate blacks—such as his opposition to the concept of black-focused schools. Many blacks opposed his decision to join the staff of CFRB in the first place, a station the com munity has traditionally perceived as stoking anti-black, anti-immigrant sentiment. “CFRB has ? history they have to deal with,” Foster says. “But quite a number of blacks listen to the station, and now they are no longer voyeurs.”

Foster maintains that Canadian racism is extremely tenacious, buf he is optimistic that it can be diminished through frank discussion—and some aggressive politi cal manoeuvring. His audacious solution for the inclusion and the empowerment of African-Canadians is a bold power play on the pari of Quebec blacks, who he believes have just enough voting power to close flu gap betwëen the federalists and separatists. He suggests that Quebec’s 110,000-strong black population support whichever party agrees to enter into constitutional discus sions with black Canadians to determine which policies might best serve their com munity. “I don’t think it’s cynical,” says Fos ter. “We have entered into an era of self-inter est. Blacks have a long history in this country that goes back to the Empire Loyalists ant even further in Quebec. We can force the fed eral government to make us feel wanted.”

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