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My Story on the Persistence of Racism in Canada

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Because of prejudices faced by his family members, Gabriel Brijbassi has already been impacted by racism, even though he is only 2 years old. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

June in my household started with a revelation of pain. As she watched news reports of the violence in the United States, my mother observed her two-year-old grandson playing with his toy cars on the floor and told my wife, “I am so happy he is taking on your complexion. It means he won’t face the prejudice I did. I don’t want him to go through anything like that.”

My wife’s ancestors are Scandinavian and Gaelic; India is the origin of my ethnic heritage. Our son, Gabriel, is a beautiful child with brownish hair, fair skin, and infectious giggles. In this tumultuous year, the only chaos he knows is caused by the rabbits he looks out for in the morning, wondering if they will sneak into the backyard to nip at his grandmother’s garden of lettuce and herbs.

In contrast, my mother watches the scenes of racially motivated atrocities from the viewpoint of a 70-year-old immigrant who has known a lifetime of heartache and prejudice. The meanness and brutality have triggered traumas for her and me. We arrived in Canada from Guyana when I was not much older than Gabriel and settled in Kitchener, a small city with a German heritage that struggled to accept the new faces arriving in the 1970s and ’80s. My mother worked in factories during those early days in Ontario and my father was a chemical engineer. I attended school not knowing how classmates and teachers perceived me, until I heard the word “paki” for the first time. It came at recess from an older boy who was blond and spoke to me with disdain, spitting out the word with a sneer. It wasn’t the word that stung — I had no idea it was a slur. What hurt was the disgust and the threat that flung with it.

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Author Adrian Brijbassi with his wife, DeNon Brijbassi, and son, Gabriel. (Heaton Photography photo)

Those traumas stay with you, they play too large a role in defining your identity. Had Gabriel’s skin colour looked more like mine and hers, my mother feared for what his future would be. In her fear, she has ceded her heritage to the oppression of racism for the sake of what she perceives will be a safer existence for her grandchild. Such is the torment and cruelty of racism in Canada.

For men like Rex Murphy and Stockwell Day to opine from the thrones on which they squat that the level of racism in the country doesn’t look all that bad is a failure in this moment. White commentators who spill myopic statements on a topic they have not lived are guilty of one of the most serious offences of their profession: intellectual complacency.

At a time when people of colour, globally, need support from white populations who control legislation and the force of power, those who question the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement or the Indigenous-led Idle No More campaign are reinforcing the pain of discrimination — while stalling social and economic progress.

What people of colour need are white champions. In the 19th century, white abolitionists — many of whom were wealthy and wielded power — risked their social standing and their lives to covertly move slaves through the Underground Railroad that led to pre-Confederation Canada. As a travel journalist I have covered the emotional journey and its enduring remnants in the Niagara Region of Ontario. When I wonder why Canada is less racist than the United States — and, having lived in both countries, I can say definitively it is — my answer is because Canada never had slavery. A Black man could own property next door to a white man and that white man needed to reconcile with the fact the law permitted him to be his neighbour. Exploring Niagara and its Black history helped me understand more about the heart of Canada.

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Niagara Falls separates Canada from the United States at the Ontario-New York border. Slaves seeking their freedom in the 19th century crossed from the U.S. into Upper Canada on the Niagara River. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

I have also written about cultures, people, and experiences from every province and territory in the country. The first time I met a Cape Breton Islander, I immediately felt at home. There is a soulfulness in that place that connects with me. Similarly, I was charmed by Calgary and the overwhelming civic pride it has for its Stampede, with its pancake breakfasts and cheerful volunteers whose sense of community resonates with you long after the last barrel race has run or cronut has been consumed. The unrelenting focus of the Indigenous peoples of British Columbia to steadily carve out their independence, both politically and economically, while using their eternal reverence for the land as their guiding principle crushes my heart with admiration every time their stories are shared. In my old hometown, I return to visit the new breweries and renovated markets in locations familiar from my youth. I have attempted to move on from the pain of my childhood, when I felt I never did fit in and I saw my mother struggle against the same sense of ceaseless judgment.

In a racist society, you surrender significant parts of your identity in order to give yourself a chance. It took years to gain perspective. By the time I did, I had changed my non-Anglicized name, forbade the religion I was raised in, sought love interests who were only white, and adopted wholeheartedly the culture of Canada. All to fit in, all to not be called names, all to adapt and survive in a jungle of inequality.

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The Steward House in Niagara-on-the-Lake was built by a freed Black slave. Freedom seekers like William Steward escaped the United States through the Underground Railroad that led to Upper Canada, which put anti-slavery legislation in place in 1793. (Vacay.ca file photo)

I also realized it wasn’t just people of colour who were discriminated against and who were challenged to change. If you are overweight or unattractive or special needs, you are also picked on and your opportunities in workplaces and relationships can be limited. But you can escape individual oppressors, you can’t get away from systemic prejudices. You are trapped until the arc of justice bends in your favour.

The Black Lives Matter protests are about giving the children of future generations, my son included, the chance to proudly, openly, and securely be themselves. Only then does racism end.

Note: Vacay.ca is an independently owned publication founded by immigrants and minorities, and is dedicated to showcasing the best of Canadian culture and destinations. Our travel journalists are encouraged to share stories related to broader topics that shape Canadian experiences now and in the future.

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The values represented by the Statue of Liberty have been under attack from racists and white supremacists. (Vacay.ca photo illustration; poem by Adrian Brijbassi)

 

2020 Vision
By Adrian Brijbassi

You and me, we shiver
On the eve of June’s heat,
As tears river, we fear winter will never cease

A reaper in blue sheaves the light,
While I follow your clang on a catwalk above a city’s strife
A fire ignites a mile to the right,
Bones crack beneath a nightstick’s might,
Now we know treachery is here as the moon kites,
Marches peaceful descend to devil’s delight
When a pompous tweet arrives to prod and kindle,
Extending fate’s fiendish plight

‘Where is hope?’ you ask,
Upon the sight of mischiefs in the dark,
Sweeping Liberty into its night
‘It only gets worse,’ I fear,
All is stark, this doom that alights,
Pen strokes blister with a torrent,
Wicked malice writ under the cover of juris,
A plague festers and poverty peaks
And our best ally — the Hope you seek — is in retreat

‘How does sanity prevail against Boogaloo freaks?’
‘Madness won, we have nowhere to sneak,’
I lament as our feet dangle over Banks Street,
‘A wish,’ you say, ‘would be to see Earth some other day’
‘Then,’ I remind, ‘we would only be turning away.’

2020 is vision to witness,
For you and me to share in grief,
Observing humanity’s knee-bent defeat,
To hear its peals for Enlightenment,
An elusive tonic for the menaces
we can’t seem to beat

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.