Growing up in the 60’s and having a last name like Black l would find every excuse in the book to pronounce my last name as something else. I would express my name in such a low tone that even that was putting me in the centre of all the jokes associated with my name.
I was being harassed at an early age and made fun of by both my classmates and even some teachers. I hated going to school in my primary years and loathed when role call was announced, l had to pronounce my name and when l did, the entire class on most occasions burst out in laughter with all kinds of slanged names that were directed at me.
This was my initial brush with harassment in the early 60’s and l really did not know how to cope with this. I had absolutely no one to turn to for help or support. Being the oldest in my family was a huge burden that l carried and having to show no weakness made for many sleepless nights.
I started to get panic attacks before most days when attending school, but l didn’t recognise what l was going through. To this day those years seemed like a blur, l have blocked many of those years out of my mind.
Growing up in an ethnic family with an unusual last name l also witnessed discrimination at a level that would not be tolerated today. Witnessing my father and my uncles being called DP’s better known as a displaced person and being told to move along on the street by the police and not to loiter is another memory that is carved in my brain and to this day when l walk by the old neighbourhood l still have flashbacks.
Like my parents many immigrants to Canada primarily settled in Toronto, Montreal, and to a lesser extend Vancouver. Times were very difficult, and most families had to double up with housing and support of each other. The Canadian government did not actively encourage immigrants because many of us were considered ill-suited to the early Canadian lifestyle.
Immigration policy was aimed at settling farmland on the Canadian prairies and the government favoured British and northern European immigrants to settle the west.
My father got lucky and was designated to work on farmland in norther Ontario which kept him closer to my mother and me at the time where we had settled in Toronto. My father went from working on northern farmland to working on the railways and these immigrants worked like slaves. The railways required a constant supply of labour for construction, maintenance, and work in subsidiary mining companies, and while immigrants were not considered desirable settlers, young immigrants males came in at thousands as seasonal labourers for the railways like my father and uncles. My father came with the intention of working for one season and making money to send back home and maybe some day return back to his homeland.
After arriving in Canada, my father faced many difficulties and challenges as we learned the language and adjusted to the rhythm of life in our new country. My parents travelled to Canada by ocean liner, landing at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Discrimination and prejudice were common, and we were prone to violence. The introduction of many ethnics being called whoops and other disparaging names occurred very frequently. Many locals accused immigrants of taking jobs away from Canadians and started to live in some of their neighbourhoods. I can recall when we first moved into our first home which we rented on the top floor, my mother and l would use the laneways to get around and not bring any attention to us moving about.
My family went through some very difficult days and l can still envision through my minds eye my mother and father working so hard and at the same time trying to help out others. My mother in particular went through some very difficult years where she had mental breakdowns with the stress and strains and discriminations that we had to endure. When she became ill and couldn’t speak the language, l can recall how she was mistreated and with no support systems to help someone that couldn’t speak the language and communicate what was happening to her. I remember sleeping outside her room because they would abuse her and treat her like an animal… Those were some of my worst memories and how we were discriminated because we could not speak the language.
My early years were times that l wish not to recall, but they are still there and being discriminated against myself and my family are scares that l will never forget.
Does this type of discrimination still exist?
I would like to hope not, but unfortunately l still see discrimination everywhere.
Talking about myself and my family has been very difficult for me as this is the first time that l have shared my personal run in with discrimination and how it affected me.
I was very hesitant about exposing my personal story, but if l can help one person or effect one family, l am glad that it’s out there.