Race prejudice in white Canada: Seeking dignity, in 1963 - Macleans.ca

Race prejudice in white Canada: Seeking dignity, in 1963

Austin Clarke’s 1963 essay in Maclean’s reveals ‘how Canada looks from across the colour-line we like to say doesn’t exist’


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    THIS YEAR I became eligible for Canadian citizenship, but I do not intend to apply for it. Not because I undervalue this status which is so highly prized by so many immigrants from all over the world; rather, because I do value its privileges highly, but realize that I would be accepting in theory a status that Canada does not intend to give me in practice — because I am a black man.

    In my eight years in Canada I have been treated with prejudice and discrimination by most white people, in large and small ways. In Canada the restaurants, buses. washrooms and other public facilities do not carry “white only” and “coloured only” signs; but every black man can read these signs in the attitude of white Canadians, and nothing will change if I become a citizen, except my own attitude — I will feel like a man who has just closed my last escape hatch.

    There is actually a psychological advantage in remaining a black foreigner instead of becoming a black Canadian. I can find some comfort in rationalizing the prejudice amid which I live: “Canadians are intolerant of all foreigners because they look different, talk strangely, have unfamiliar customs and habits— in short, because they are foreigners. If I can no longer endure this atmosphere I can go back home to the West Indies, where at least I enjoyed the security of being a member of the majority race, and where poverty is the only penalty for being black.”

    But if I had taken Canadian citizenship I would have lost those defences. I would not have had another country to return to, or think of returning to. I would have had to accept the fact that I am treated differently from other Canadians only because I am black. I would have had to tolerate being a highly visible citizen who can suddenly become invisible when he applies for a job, looks for living quarters or goes shopping.

    White Canadians with whom have discussed examples of discrimination have suggested that and other black people living in Canada are hypersensitive, and too prone to see prejudice where it really doesn’t exist. “How do you know," they have asked, “that you wouldn’t have failed to get that job if you had been white? How do you know that the white woman who stood in the streetcar, when the only vacant seat was beside you, didn’t simply prefer to stand?"

    My answer is that as a black man I am ipso facto an expert on discrimination. I do not want to experience prejudice and I do not need to look for it — it is the very atmosphere in which a black man exists.

    A black man knows there is discrimination even in overpoliteness and exaggerated solicitude from whites. I have gone into a restaurant and said to a waiter, “I’d like to use the washroom.” He answered, “Certainly, sir, by all means sir, right this way sir." All I had wanted to know was the location of the washroom. His answer implied that I was asking permission to use the washroom and he was going to show me in no uncertain terms that this restaurant, believe it or not, did not discriminate against black customers.

    No, I cannot agree that black West Indians in Canada are “prejudice prone.” In any case many of the examples of discrimination are too obvious to be imaginary.

    Discrimination against black West Indian immigrants starts before they ever get to Canada, with the practices (although not, in theory, the policies) of the federal department of immigration. Officials of the department have more than once publicly stated that there is no bar against black West Indians, that each case is considered on its merits.

    If that is so, the immigration officials certainly do not consider there is much merit in black West Indians. The only black people freely admitted to Canada as landed immigrants are a limited number of women, who must accept the undignified classification of domestic servants, plus a few persons hand-picked by Canadian authorities because they have professions or special skills needed by Canada.

    All foreign students, including white and black West Indians, are admitted to Canada on non-immigrant visas, generally called student visas. Those who want to remain must apply for “landed immigrant” status, which makes it legal for them to take a job and is the first step toward citizenship. White students, including white West Indians, seem to have no difficulty in acquiring landed - immigrant papers. I know several who did so.

    But black West Indians who try to change student status for that of immigrant run into a labyrinth of delay, dissuasion and double-talk, even though their birthplace, background, culture and outlook are the same as that of their white compatriots, and their education and intelligence are often higher. When I decided 1 would like to live and work in Toronto after 1 left the University of Toronto l applied for a landed-immigrant application form at the Bedford Road branch in Toronto. What happened there convinced me that the top immigration officials have not informed their clerks that there is no bar against black West Indian immigrants.

    One clerk warned me that black people “found the going tough in Canada because of the bitterness of the winter.” I know now that the bitter climate he was talking about was the bitterness of prejudice. Another clerk advised me not to apply for landed-immigrant status — that would cancel my status as a student, he said and since there was no guarantee that I would be accepted, I might be deported as a person with no status whatever. I decided not to run that risk, and did not apply.

    But not long after that incident another member of the West Indian group at the university proudly showed us his passport, stamped “landed immigrant.” We were surprised, because the successful applicant was, like us, Negro. The answer was that he was not as black as we were; he was what we call in Barbados “clear skinned” or “whitey white.” In the southern U. S. he would be classified as a Negro at sight. The rest of us were glad for him, but sad at this evidence of the grim naïveté of Canadian discrimination based on a man’s degree of blackness.

    Of about twenty black West Indians who were friends of mine at the University of Toronto, only five attained landed-immigrant status — and none did so on individual merit. Four married Canadian girls, black or white. The fifth, married to a West Indian girl, had a child born in Canada who was therefore a Canadian citizen. Because of their child’s nationality, the authorities let the parents remain in Canada. My own present status as a landed immigrant, eligible for citizenship this year, resulted from my marriage.

    I First encountered discrimination in Canada soon after I arrived. I put my name down to join the Canadian army through its university officers’ training plan. The question of color did not arise during the preliminary tests and medical examination, but when I was interviewed by officers in charge of the plan, they told me that candidates must be British subjects. I pointed out that I was born in Barbados, British West Indies, my family had been born there for several generations, and I was consequently nothing if not a British subject. Without putting it into so many words they left no doubt in my mind that to them “British subject” meant “white British subject.”

    In any case, my application was turned down. The interviewing officers did not have to write on my application “refused because of colour,” of course. Instead, they decided I was “rude and hard to get along with.” Certainly I argued my case emphatically, and that may have made me seem “hard to get along with.” Who wouldn't be, faced by presumably intelligent men who were denying the obvious truth that I was a British subject? I might well have been rude, though, if I had known at that time what I discovered soon afterward — that another West Indian student had been accepted for the officers' training course. His birthplace was the same as mine. But he was white.

    The most serious effect of discrimination against the black man in Canada is his inability to get a job commensurate with his abilities. We soon learn that to get jobs at all we must aim far lower than white men of the same education and ability. And even then employers seem to imply that they are doing us a favour, that we're lucky to be taken on — and that we must therefore work twice as hard as white workers to show our gratitude.

    For example, a post-office foreman assigned me to drag heavy loads of Christmas cards across miles of floor in the sorting room during the Christmas rush, while white workers were “busy” lifting envelopes from one cage and putting them into another. Someone has to get the tough jobs, you say, and it just happened to be me? It’s no use suggesting the law of chance to black workers — they know the chances are stacked against them.

    A friend of mine — he happened to have a BA from the University of Toronto — failed to find a job that white university grads consider to be of “BA level" and applied for a job as teletype operator at the Canadian Press. He was told that he must have a minimum speed of sixty words a minute. After he had attained that speed he was taken on. Two weeks later he was assigned to teach the teletype routine to a white applicant — who had been taken on when he reached a speed of fifty-five words a minute. In neither of these cases would the employers have admitted that they were practising discrimination. Possibly they did not even realize it, so deeply was it lodged in their subconscious. Nor would we have openly accused them of it. To do so would not be behaving like a “nice black man.”

    I can, though, openly accuse the National Employment Service of discrimination when a clerk scribbles “coloured” on my card even before he gives an employer a chance to make up his mind on the basis of my other qualifications. I was not supposed to see this notation, of course, but I did, and it appalled me. I could have understood a description which said “cripple” or “one arm” or even “unmannerly” — those would have been pertinent comments on physical or temperamental defects — and would not necessarily have barred the applicant from employment.

    It might be suggested that “coloured” is a useful description for an NES clerk to have on a job-seeker’s card. Perhaps — if its use is to make sure he doesn’t get a job. Could it have had that effect in my case? For all I know that card is still filed in a cabinet at the Richmond Street branch of NES in Toronto. The clerk who wrote “coloured” on my card told me in 1957, “I’ll call you the moment anything suitable turns up.” That moment has not yet come.

    This despite the fact that the type of job I was applying for was far below my capability. Black men trying to live in a white man’s world tend to do this because experience teaches them it’s the only way to survive. So I was looking for a clerical or bookkeeping job, on the basis of these qualifications:

    I had successfully completed part one of the London School of Economics BSc examination; I had attended University of Toronto for two years; I had been a high-school teacher in the West Indies; I was qualified to be an engineer’s assistant or a member of a survey team. But in six years no Canadian employer has needed a coloured clerk or bookkeeper with those qualifications.

    The feeling of frustration, of utter uselessness that the lack of suitable employment brings, is deadening. I cannot understand why there are not more suicides among black immigrants to Canada. I have seen the anxiety of friends setting out to look for a job. The white shirt must be as fresh as new snow; the shoes shined; the blue university blazer sparkling, with its coat of arms ringing a bell proclaiming to the world that the man who knocks on the door is not an ordinary man. but one who knows he is more than qualified for the job he seeks. Because if he is not overqualified, he knows his chances are not nearly equal to those of a white applicant.

    The blazer and the college tie are for black immigrants symbols that the wearers of these trappings are not like the uneducated black men from the slums where most Canadian Negroes live. But despite all this image making, all this scholastic regalia, the result is the same: a job far below the wearer's qualifications. This is enough to make any man feel inferior.

    During 1962, two black men worked in the Coxwell branch of NES. Both were graduates of the University of Toronto, one a BA. the other an MA in economics. Almost certainly they were the only university graduates working as ordinary interviewers, a job for which the educational requirement is no more than Grade 13. Both these men had tried a method of finding jobs which hundreds of university graduates use successfully — the hiring sessions which business representatives hold regularly on the campuses of Canada. They had failed, as most black West Indian students fail.

    The University of Toronto is proud of the record of its placement service. This year, according to an official of the service, there are four jobs available to every U of T graduate, on the average. And this is a semi-recession year. When I was at the university the demand for graduates was even greater. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of black graduates who obtained jobs as a result of campus interviews — and all these had outstanding scholastic records. Campus enlistment is of no help to the black student and so far. to the best of my knowledge, none of the university authorities have done anything about stopping the discrimination the business organizations practise.

    A Trinidadian friend of mine, a PhD in history, approached a University of Toronto placement officer — and was given an application form for a railway porter’s job. This brilliant young black man had in his pocket at that time job offers from University College of the West Indies and from Howard University, the great U. S. Negro institution. As a British subject he would have preferred to work in Canada, but he is now a professor of history at Howard.

    Case after case of job discrimination comes up when black immigrants compare notes: A Toronto paper that editorialized indignantly against discrimination in Little Rock and at the University of Mississippi turned down the application of a black man who graduated at the top of his University of Western Ontario class, and hired a classmate who didn’t even graduate. I knew both men, and I can testify that the only differences I could detect between them was that one was brilliant — and black, and the other was mediocre — and white.

    Black actors say that the CBC never casts black men except in “black-type” roles — porters or redcaps: no typical person in the Canadian scene ever seems to be black.

    Radio stations do not hire black announcers. although it might be thought that the invisibility of radio would increase a black man's chances of employment.

    Even if he survives the Canadian government's unwillingness to let him live in Canada, and Canadian employers' reluctance to give him a job (ably abetted by the government's own employment service) a black immigrant's problems are by no means solved. He must learn to live in a world which endlessly reminds him in major and minor ways, that he is not only “different” but undesirably different. I have heard white Canadians call black men “lazy" and even “unclean" on the sole basis that their skin is black. It's not easy to be patient when a waitress or sales clerk bypasses you to serve white customers who arrived after you did.

    It's not easy to shrug off the discrimination that makes it difficult to choose your living accommodationThe law requires that a landlord with more than six rental units in his building cannot discriminate against tenants because of race, colour or creed. But when I knock at the door of a house which has a “rooms for rent" sign in the window, and the door is slammed in my face, how can I find out if it is because I am black, or because the landlord has fewer than seven units to rent? To this my reaction is "To hell with the landlord, and to hell with the Ontario regulation which does not have the guts to state that a landlord in the business of renting rooms must rent me one because I am in the business of renting a room.” However, I’m not so lacking in personal pride as to want to live in a house where the landlord accepts me as a tenant only because the law says he must.

    How do black immigrants react to the discrimination and prejudice that is part of their daily lives? Some live in terror of its icy fingers and avoid anything that might “give the white man a wrong impression of black people.”

    Others become hostile and take out their hostility in aggressive social and sexual behavior. Some marry white women and seek to drown their fears and complexes in their wives’ environment. In my opinion they only create another problem — the problem of producing mulatto children who belong neither to the white world nor the black.

    Many pretend that discrimination has never happened to them, like the BA employed by NES, who has apparently forgotten that since he graduated in 1958 “nondiscrimination” has gained him the following jobs: night watchman; night-shift postal worker: short-order cook in a hospital, and assorted clerical jobs obtained through a part-time employment agency.

    What can be done to improve the basic living conditions of the black immigrant in Canada? What, in short, would I want if I were to become a Canadian citizen?

    In the first place, I do not expect that any law could be passed that would educate white Canadians in tolerance overnight — but I woidd expect to be protected agains' prejudiced landlords of any building that advertises vacancies for rent, not just those who have more than six rental units.

    I do not expect to be given an executive job the day I become a citizen, but I would want and expect to find a job for which I am qualified — not a joe-job that no white Canadian with my qualifications would accept.

    I would not want to be pampered, or be invited to apply for membership in the Granite Club. But I would expect to be allowed to live in the degree of dignity which I earn and deserve: no more, no less.

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