I was very proud to be asked to share my story of what it means to be Canadian, amongst 149 other amazing creative, resilient and beautiful women of colour. My piece titled "The Hyphen" dissects what it means for me to be a -Canadian, and how my formative life experiences helped me create and transform my own identity; which is still evolving.
THE HYPHEN by Asia Clarke
My experience of being ____-Canadian is about the dash. The thing that implies duality, connection and disconnection.
I grew up in the 90s in Malvern, a former priority neighbourhood in northeast Scarborough, Ontario. I went to an elementary school with mostly kids of colour. I went on to a very diverse high school, where my three best friends were Trinidadian, Filipino, and Tamil. Even though we were born here, we knew we were hyphenated Canadians. Being Canadian for us was always an addition. As a kid, I remember noticing that all my friends were people of colour, but it was hard to spot commercials with people of colour in them between episodes of our favourite cartoons. I was young when I realized that people of colour were an afterthought for mainstream Canadian culture.
I was born in Canada, but I was always asked where I was from. My identity, therefore, became one of explaining lineage. I was and am proud of my Trinidadian, Bajan and Dominican heritage. I know my lineage is one of diaspora travelling from place to place. Some travel by choice and others by force. I know I am mixed race - African, White, Indigenous/Arawak blood all runs in my veins. I remember once being told by a Somalian friend in high school, "Oh, I thought you were an African. You look Ethiopian." I remember thinking, but am I not? I realized then then that Afro-Caribbean people were an afterthought for many continental Africans.
I entered York University's Environmental Studies & International Development program when I was 18 years old. I chose this Bachelor's degree only because it didn't require me to take Grade 12 biology, chemistry, or algebra. I was one of those kids whose guidance counsellor discouraged from science and math.
When I entered York, I remember being told by my first year humanities instructor, "I would like for us to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations communities and we would like to honour them here today." Until that point, I had never been taught or even had a clue to acknowledge and respect the First Nations communities that called "our land" home for thousands of years. Until that day, my summary of Canadian history was The Hudson Bay Company, Vimy Ridge, and global peacekeeping efforts. And hockey. I realized then, that cultural identity is the soup that we are in and that we are fed every day. I realized then that the education system I grew up in fed me a Canadian history from an uncritical and colonial lens.
Since graduating from York, I began working in International Development field. In 2013, I became Youth Entrepreneurship Advisor with CUSO international, where I developed and facilitated business development, micro finance and business plan workshops for youth in Roseau, Dominica. There, I met a young man who wanted to start a car detailing business, but who could not secure a loan from the bank. His family did not own property and he did not have community support as a guarantor for a small loan. I remember him telling me, "There is no opportunity for me here. If only I could get off this island." He wanted to come to Canada for other opportunities, but he couldn't get an entry visa. While my Canadian citizenship plus my privilege of financial stability meant I did not need a visa permission to enter Dominica, a youth born in Dominica, differing from me only in social status means, did not have the same freedom of movement as I did. I realized then that Canadian citizenship provided me a real privilege, that my passport guaranteed for me an opening of life opportunities.
As an African-Canadian, I always dreamed about my first trip to Africa. So when I got the opportunity to visit Accra, Ghana, for a Women's Entrepreneurship Advisor position with Crossroads International in 2016, I was overcome with excitement. I would be the first to "go back to Africa" in my family for generations. My own personal identity had been missing a puzzle piece, and I yearned for an authentic African experience.
Once I arrived in Accra, I began working with HIV/Aids Peer Educators (Obrapaa Women's Group) on an arts-entrepreneurship program. I introduced myself as being a Canadian, from African descent via the Caribbean. None of the women had ever heard of Trinidad, Barbados or Dominica before. I was taken aback — there are so many Africans living outside of Africa that they didn't know about. They themselves didn't identify as simply African; they were Ashanti and Fante. They were from tribes; their identities were wrapped tightly in Twi, one of the most common local languages that they spoke amongst each other, which I couldn't understand. In an attempt to create a space of inclusion for me, they named me Sister Abena; "Abena" means Tuesday, the day of the week on which I was born. To tease me, one of the women said "Ahh yes, welcome Sister Obroni!" Obroni means white person, or foreigner. It was then that I realized then that I was indeed an African-Canadian, and not an African.
Being Black-Canadian/African-Canadian/Caribbean-Canadian indeed has its challenges, and its privileges. My identity is about the hyphen, and I've realized it is mine to define and to claim. The hyphen for me now represents the building of a bridge; a space for me to determine my post-colonial African diaspora story, one life experience at a time.