I've heard the story a hundred times. My father had planned on settling in Florida. He made hotel arrangements by phone from his home in Jamaica, and when he arrived in Miami, the front desk clerk said, "Listen here, boy, you get out of this hotel right now before I call the police."
My father decided that perhaps he'd try living in Canada. This is the way he tells it, practically verbatim. "I arrived at Immigration, the officer looked at my information and said, 'Mr. Moodie, I see here you went to Cornwall College in Jamaica. I graduated from the Canadian campus. Here are your papers. If you need a place to stay tonight there's a YMCA on College Street. Mr. Moodie, welcome to Canada. '"
This is not every immigrant's story. There are many, many immigrants who have had a much less welcoming introduction to Canada. But this is my dad's experience, and if you ever meet him he'll tell you the story at the drop of a hat. And dammit, I love that story.
Sure, it feeds into my infantile, petty and pointless Canadian desire to feel superior to the U.S. I mean, if you've ever spent any amount of time in the States, it's mind-boggling how racially segregated the population really is. Growing up, I've always felt sure that would never happen here. Ever. I mean, we're different people right? Fundamentally different, right?
But then I always thought that American-style gun violence would never happen here either. I never thought I would see the day that shots would ring out on Yonge Street in broad daylight. Suddenly I'm beginning to wonder if Toronto's conversion into a city with American-style segregation is simply a matter of time.
In some ways, we don't have anything to fear on this count. Blacks in the States are, for the most part, the direct descendants of slaves. Here, there isn't so much one black community as many diverse black communities.
You have some black Canadians whose history can be traced to before Confederation, but the vast majority come from all over the globe. They speak different languages. They have a myriad of different religions and political ideologies. They come from different classes. They're further separated by the fact that some are born here, while others come from abroad. Add to this the fact that some of these communities don't get along so well - I dare you, I double-dare you, to ask someone from St. Lucia or Nassau what makes them different from a Jamaican.
And then there's Douglas Massey.
He's a Princeton sociologist who has been studying racial segregation in the States. He's studied the forces that increase segregation in a society, and apparently Toronto has all the hallmarks.
What disturbs me most about his work is that he documents how some blacks like the idea of seperateness. They prefer it. They don't want to mix with whites; they don't think it's right.
That's what frightens me more than anything.
Right now, there isn't a single street in this city that I feel I can't walk down because of my skin colour.
Is this city free of racism? Of course not. But there isn't a single bar or restaurant or club or store that's going to kick me out because of my race.
I can get a taxi anywhere here, at any time of day.
But perhaps I'm a tad naive. Perhaps I'm dreaming in colours. Perhaps you've experienced segregation yourself. Perhaps you've been made to feel like you couldn't live somewhere or walk somewhere. Write in, speak out, e-mail, name the experience. Don't just let it slide. We must do everything in our power to destroy it.
If we can hold onto our acceptance of each other, if we can keep it alive for our children and our children's children, then we will have given them one of our most precious gifts that this country has to offer. And that will mean so much to so many someday.
Because the moment segregation becomes acceptable, or even preferred, that's the day that this city truly dies. That's the day the sense of promise the immigration officer made my father feel slowly flickers away.
Andrew Moodie is an actor, playwright, and director whose play, The Real McCoy, is now playing at the Factory Theatre.