By ROYSON JAMES
The following is an excerpt of a speech delivered at the 53rd independence anniversary of the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) by Toronto Star columnist Royson James. It is reprinted here with his kind permission.
From the day we arrived on these shores we’ve tried to improve what we found. The early students. The early professionals who somehow slipped through the net. The domestics grudgingly allowed in 1955 and after. The busted dam of the masses in the 1970s that changed the equation forever. We came. We endured. We stumbled. We survived. We thrived. We raised hell when reason and anger failed to stem the evil of bigotry. We populate. We aren’t going anywhere. We are here to stay.
We all must deal with that.
And so I have a message for our adopted land and the people with sway and influence and power. I have a message for you, the people, my people, resplendent as you are in your black, green and gold. And a message for the JCA, the guardians of our collective presence here in Canada.
Toronto, Canada: What you see here tonight is who we are. This is the everyday, natural, reality of my Jamaicans in Toronto. We are your boss, your caregiver, cabinet minister, your surgeon, your police chief, your plumber, your university chancellor, your judge, your banker, your broker, your bus driver. We outnumber the criminals thousands to one.
Yet, it’s so easy to forget us. We are not in the news. We don’t shoot up, shoot out, gang bang, breed indiscriminately, suck the welfare system, take more than we give. We just build this city with verve and energy and force of will. And it’s easy for you to forget about us because our contributions are not the subject of press reports.
The richest Jamaican among us, Michael Lee Chin, seethes when he talks about this. “Our contributions are not the headlines, so they are unsung. Our reputation has been ambushed. A few bad men have hijacked our reputation.”
On Nov. 4, 2012, I was fortunate to head an effort at the Toronto Star to present this counter-narrative. To celebrate Jamaica’s 50th, the eight staffers of Jamaican descent executed a project called Jamaicans Run Tings.
The premise? We could easily find 50 Jamaicans in Toronto, follow them for 24 hours, and show how much impact and influence they wield in making Toronto great. I could see the wheels turning in the editors’ heads as I proposed the project. 50? How do we avoid repetition? Are they out there?
We, of course, know better. We live, sleep with, worship and play with thousands every day. So, consider this list:
Alvin Curling, Donovan Bailey. Dwight Drummond. Millionaire Ray Chang. Justice Michael Tulloch. Councilor Michael Thompson. Hamlin Grange. Joe Halstead. Julian Falconer. Denham Jolly. Pamela Appelt. Kardinall Offishall. Nene Kwasi Kefele. Mary Anne Chambers. Professor Carl James. Writers Olive Senior, Rachel Manley, Afua Cooper. Trevor Massey. Gail “Till Debt do us Part” Vaz-Oxlade. An impressive list. Guess what. Not one of these made our 50. The bench strength is that deep.
Go Online and call it up. Be blown away by the sheer brilliance and reach of Jamaicans here.
Patients at NY General do a double take when they realize the highly recommended surgeon Everton Gooden is a Black guy. The guy running the water system in Durham and York is Cordell Samuels, a Yardie. In the middle of the largest corporate takeover in Canadian history is lawyer Cornell Wright. Can’t have a baby? They go to Dr. Marjorie Dixon. The construction manager of the tallest condo building in the city is Julie Robinson, another Yardie.
Those are the ones who opened the windows on their lives to let the Star readers in. A whole other group wouldn’t even be interviewed for the story. They just want to travel under the radar. We call them “Incognegroes”.
We are not bad news. We are intricately intertwined with the infrastructure of the city. We are builders. We belong here. And any attempt to treat us as other than such – to dismiss us as criminals, to card us and harass us with street checks – is to be met with stiffened outrage.
The message is, please remember that the lack of positive exposure of the Howard Shearers and Justice Donald McLeod and dentist Ken Montague does not mean that the brilliant and gifted and productive Jamaican is the exception.
“We are the rule,” says Justice McLeod. “We are the unwritten rule. Nobody hears about us because we are doing so good. Here we have a society of Jamaican-Canadians and the ones we focus on aren’t the ones worth billions to our economy, but the ones shooting each other at the corner.”
That’s not just a message for the average Torontonian. It’s a message for the majority of you here – the Black middle class; the professionals who make this place tick; the ones who bear the brunt of the negative stereotypes of Jamaicans.
Don’t take it lying down. Fight back. Know that the stereotype is a vicious lie perpetrated by people who never wanted us here in the first place and refuse to account for our contributions.
My mother came here in1963 and worked as a domestic in Forrest Hill. My father was an orderly at Sunnybrook. They got in only because of people like Stan Grizzle, Don Moore, Bromley Armstrong and Harry Gairey. We came later. Worked hard. Followed the rules. Got an education. Volunteer. Job. Mortgage. Taxes. Cheer on the hopeless Toronto Maple Leafs. Put up with the treacherous weather. For what?
So your son can walk down the street and have some punk cop stop him for no good reason other than he has the skin colour of a gang banger. C’mon. That’s insulting. It is spitting on the legacy of your parents. It cannot be tolerated. You must not countenance it. You must fight the disrespect with every ounce of energy – whether it comes from the mayor you love or the police chief you dreamed for, or the leader of your political party, or your neighbour.
My message to the masses here is. Resist. Fight for justice. Speak up. To the pollsters. In letters to the editor. On talk radio. In the barbershop. In the public square. This is no time for Incognegroes. We are at a critical time when human rights gains could be reversed. To sit and be quiet is to desecrate the promise of a True North Strong and Free.
There are two streams to this. Some of us are not versed with the issues and are often confused when leaders we respect spout something. The media is often in that group. Speaking as a reporter on the carding issue – if it weren’t for key community teachers – those who knew the issue, could outline the pitfalls, and expose the strategies of the mayor, the police brass and their acolytes, I could easily have been swayed.
I implore you – as you make money, as you pursue your education, as you work two or three jobs, as you struggle valiantly to make ends meet, take time to listen to the teachers. Or community leaders who have proven themselves as guardians of our heritage and our future.
Many of you are in big jobs. You are at the table. You have worked hard and have a lot at stake. The temptation is to turn the door on your community, act as if you are not cut from the same cloth, then forget their struggles and dismiss them as weak and unworthy of advocacy.
Your community needs you.
Everyone needs an anchor, roots, tributaries that lead to some headwater far away that may need some mapping. The community needs your voice wherever you are.
Chief of police. Your community needs you.
Cabinet minister. Your community needs you.
Banker, political strategist, city planner, social scientist, university professor, TTC manager – your community needs you.
Finally, the JCA.
You are blessed and highly favoured.
You are the strongest, largest, most established institution in our community. With such privilege comes great responsibility.
Two things I ask of you.
ONE. Incapable as we are of quickly stemming the virus that infects some of our youth, considering the dysfunction of their lives and station, the JCA may want to channel and focus a campaign of Jamaican Goodness to counter the debilitating effect of Jamaican badness. The former outnumbers the latter thousands to 1. It may be time to showcase it. Deliberately.
A few years back, I deliberately started playing up my Jamaican roots. It was a counter to the narrative of the bad Jamaican. This mission of the JCA is not hard. All the goodness is all around us. Jamaican goodness. We just need to package it as such. Promote it. Brand it. So Toronto sees us for what we really are – a boon to the city.
Secondly. Lead the rest of the Black population.
To remain in our Jamaican enclave is to limit our potential. What if on our 50th Anniversary the JCA had launched an initiative to bring together all the people of Caribbean and African descent. What if we had challenged all the other islands and continental African nations to join and expand the effort as they celebrated their 50th, imagine what we might have started.
I love Jamaica and mi nah sell out. But at the end of the day, my brother may have been sold into Barbados or Haiti or Martinique or Brazil. Our strength as an island nation – especially here in Toronto – will be so much more effective and powerful if we lead an initiative that brings us together as peoples of the African diaspora.