Growing up in Canada in the 1960’s left you sort of oblivious to the issue of race. It’s not that it didn’t exist, more the fact that there simply were very few people of colour living in Canada at the time. Probably the only visible minority present in any number were people of Asian descent, and those days that simply meant Chinese.
So it was hard as a young child to understand the whole civil rights and black power issue. Now both of my parents were socialists (no, not like most Canadians, there are very few who would call themselves that no matter what people think) and had better insight into what was going on than the majority of people in Canada. They were friends with people who had been freedom riders; people who had gone down to the Southern States in the late fifties and early sixties to help with the voter registration drives and other integration protests.
But as a kid those things didn’t really permeate my awareness except for on a couple of occasions. One was a conversation I remember overhearing my father having with my mother about visiting a friend of theirs in Windsor Ontario. For those of you who don’t know Windsor is just across the border from Detroit Michigan, and in those innocent days people would just walk through the tunnel under the St. Clair river and go into Detroit for a visit.
My father told my mom that before he and their friend would cross the border his friend made sure that he was carrying a copy of the latest Black Panther newsletter, which he would carry displayed prominently under one arm when they walked the streets. This ensured that their chances of being harassed were reduced to a minimum.
Of course that piece of information only served to confuse me, because at that point in time the only black panther I even knew of was the one in the Jungle Bookby Rudyard Kipling who had befriended Mowgli. Needless to say this left me with some very confused mental images of going to visit Detroit.
It was a 1968 visit to Washington D.C., when I was seven, that I began to understand about the whole black and white issue, and how things were different in the United States than Canada. I’m not saying that I gained any huge grasp of the issues or anything like that, I just began to understand that unfairness and anger existed in the world.
I think my parents had thought a trip to Washington in the spring would be pleasant, the trees blossoming and not as many tourists crowding the monuments. We were to be staying with a friend of the family’s who worked for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s (C. B. C.) Washington bureau.
World events have a way of making all your best-laid plans look ridiculous. Washington D.C. in the spring of 1968 was not the ideal vacation spot. I’m sure the only reason we still went on the family trip was because it was too late to return the plane tickets, and to change my father’s vacation time. Just a week or two before we were to travel Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
In the days leading up to our trip the front pages of the papers were full of pictures of inner city America in flames. I think there were lots of phone calls made to Washington before my parents were convinced it was safe to travel. It turned out to be a remarkably uneventful trip with very few indications that anything untoward had recently happened in the city.
In fact there was only one occasion that I remember anything being mentioned at all by our host. We had parked the car at the top of a hill, I can’t remember where we were going, and when one of us went of lock the car doors he said not to bother, he’d rather it stolen then destroyed. Turning to my father he added that two weeks ago standing here you could see smoke billowing upwards from various points through out the city.
But for me the biggest revelation of the whole trip was the number of black people. To my eyes, which were completely unused to seeing any people of colour, it appeared they were the predominant race in the United States. Somewhere along the way I had come to understand that J. F. Kennedy had been associated with the civil rights movement, so at one point I turned to my mom and asked if that’s how he got elected because all of the black people had voted for him. She replied that there were not enough black people in the United States for their vote alone to have guaranteed his election.
Now I won’t be presumptuous enough to say at the age of seven that those events changed my life, but it certainly widened my worldview. Over the next few years, before high school at any rate, through reading fiction such as To Kill A Mockingbird and histories of the era, I became familiarized with the events surrounding Montgomery, Birmingham, and integration in general.
The other thing that happened, as I grew older, was that I started to leave the shelter of my middle class neighbourhood and discover Canada had people of colour living here as well. Of course Canada has always been a lot politer than most other countries, so our racism has always been more discreet. Why do you need fire hoses and dogs when economics and social lines do the job a lot cheaper and just as efficiently?
In some ways the racism in Canada runs deeper than that in the United States. With power still lingering in the hands of those whose father’s held the reigns from before we were a country the chances of any person of colour becoming part of the inner circles of power in this country are next to nil. Unlike Colin Powell and Ms. Rice who genuinely wield power, Canada’s most visible minority, Michelle Jean the new Governor General, is simply for show.
Although some people trumpet her appointment as the new face of Canada, implying a future of multicultural pluralism, I find it hard to believe. We’ve never been forced to deal with the issue of race and confront our own fears and bigotries in the manner our neighbours to the south have. Placidly we live in the belief that we are better than them because of that, failing to see that we are beset with the exact same problems.
We have the same economic gap, the same disproportionate representation in jails, and the problem with assumption of guilt that black men experience in the States is just as wide spread in Canada.
Rosa Parks never would have had to fight for a seat on our buses, because we are just too polite to do that sort of thing in public. The trick would have been for her to get a seat at the same table as everybody else. Not much has changed there, and it doesn’t look like it will any time soon.