Canada 2017·PERSONAL ESSAY

How Toronto's black press taught me to find hope despite the despair of exclusion

When Canada frustrates me, I remember Al Hamilton’s message: it's a work in progress.

When Canada frustrates me, I remember Al Hamilton’s message: it's a work in progress

Al Hamilton, seen here in his younger years, founded Contrast newspaper, the “eyes, ears and voice of Canada’s Black Community” in 1969. (Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

I remember Al Hamilton — tall, handsomely so, bald headed and proudly black. I can still recall his broad brim fedora, his precious Lincoln Cadillac and his smoking pipe. For me, a West Indian immigrant from Barbados, he was the quintessential black Canadian.  

I wonder what he would think of Canada now.

As editor of Hamilton's Contrast newspaper in the 1970s, I found Tuesdays to be the most important part of the week. It was the day Hamilton put Canada to the test in what today's academics would call a struggle for recognition.

I would pin typeset strips to the wall of the paste-up room, each one vying to be published as the week's news and opinions. And I would wait for Hamilton's return to the office to know how many printed pages I would have to fill. Advertising would be the deciding factor.

Hamilton [believed] in a just Canada in which blacks would simply be no more and no less than citizens and individuals. It was a struggle to which he woke up every morning.- Cecil Foster

Each week, Hamilton went on a quest to secure mainstream Canadian advertising for the paper. Sisyphus appeared to have an easier job rolling his stone up the hill. And if Sisyphus had unwavering commitment to his task, it certainly was not as renewable as Hamilton's belief in a just Canada in which blacks would simply be no more and no less than citizens and individuals.

It was a struggle to which he woke up every morning.

An oasis of talent

Through Contrast, he assembled a network of blacks from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, to fight for a better day for all visible minorities — a term then coming into regular use.

Contrast was a magnet for all budding black journalists — and there were many of us with talents honed around the world — who found the newspaper an oasis in a bleak landscape where blacks, for the main part, were not seen as reporters, editors and certainly not as on-air presenters or actors. Hamilton and Contrast were ground zero for these struggles.

A group of men pose outside of the offices of Contrast newspaper in 1976. (Claudio Lewis)

But every Tuesday afternoon, he returned with a frown on his face.

None of the banks, the car and insurance companies, the government agencies, media houses, and so forth, would take out an ad with the newspaper that prided itself as the voice of the Canadian black community.  

"I guess blacks don't drink beer," he would say of the breweries, "and they don't drink whisky, drive cars, buy insurance, use the banks, watch television or read newspapers."

His message was that if blacks were perceived to be doing these everyday Canadian things, then it would follow that they would be viewed as part of a desirable market and courted in a medium that proudly represented them.

Hamilton would chuckle, puff on his pipe, and wonder aloud if all blacks thought the same way on the same things and whether we had any individuality.- Cecil Foster

And, indeed, Contrast represented blacks, not only by publishing their opinions and daily encounters. The mainstream media recognized Contrast's role. Lazy reporters wanting to know what "the black community" felt about any matter simply called Contrast and quoted whoever answered the phone.

Hamilton would chuckle, puff on his pipe, and wonder aloud if all blacks thought the same way on the same things and whether we had any individuality.

'Don't just stand there!'

Nothing burned Hamilton more than Honest Ed's, the flashy bargain emporium that was Contrast's neighbour.

Hamilton would see the long lines of blacks waiting from early morning to get into the store and would wonder why he could never convince Honest Ed to place in Contrast, at a fraction of the cost to boot, just one of those full-page idiosyncratic ads. 

The hand-painted, pun-laden signs at Honest Ed's have been part of the discount department store's iconic brand for more than half a century. (CBC)

We'd see them all the time in the mainstream press, boasting of the pots and pans, household knickknacks and even those barrels West Indians used to send non-cash remittances — mostly all bought from Honest Ed's — back home.

Still every Tuesday he went calling, following up his telephone and written enquiries with face-to-face meetings with advertising account executives and owners. And just about every time he returned to say Contrast would publish the minimum pages his printers would accept. And we would start all over again.

And that was the key to the thinking of Hamilton and others around him: that Canada is always renewable, a work in progress, and that there was always reason for hope rather than the despair of exclusion.

Sometimes in their frustration some blacks would proclaim in community fora: why fight for recognition as full Canadians? Why not create independent black institutions like banks, businesses, schools, stores and cultural centres?

And that was the key to the thinking of Hamilton and others around him: that Canada is always renewable, a work in progress, and that there was always reason for hope rather than the despair of exclusion.- Cecil Foster

Wilson Head, a professor at Toronto's York University and a friend of Hamilton's, would counter, "segregation in any form is wrong and immoral."

He knew from experience; he was born and raised in Jim Crow Southern United States.

A tough time to be hopeful

This hope was based on the commitment of some non-black politicians in the mainstream political parties: those in the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, such a Roy McMurtry, and among the federal Liberals, most notably then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He found ways to identify with blacks not only in Canada but in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Commonwealth and Francophonie.

In a real way, Trudeau was building on the legacy of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and his protégée Lincoln Alexander, the first black federal Cabinet Minister and Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, and all those sleeping car porters that sought them out as allies in the cause for black advancement and the (re)making of a modern Canada.

Al Hamilton touched the lives of many accomplished black Canadians, including the Toronto Star's Royson James, Citytv’s Jojo Chintoh and, of course, Cecil Foster. (CBC)

But it was still a tough time to be hopeful.

This was still the Toronto that openly questioned whether Larry Grossman, a Jew, could ever become Premier of Ontario; where the mainstream tabloid newspaper advocated against black immigration, and openly described blacks collectively as anti-social and inferior beings; where every group and community kept its gay members in the closet; where many old-timers in all political parties still regarded Canada as a White Man's country.

Eventually, I left Contrast and made my way into mainstream journalism. But I had learned a lot about Canada and the dreams of those who voluntarily made Canada their home and native land.

In 1996 I published A Place Called Canada: the Meaning of Being Black in Canada, in which I called upon much I had learned at Contrast. Reading that book now, I have mixed feelings about how far we have come — indeed, I only have to turn on my television to see black reporters and actors; we do get a federal Cabinet minister from time to time, a Governor-General and a chief of police — but I am saddened at how far we still have to go.

In academia, where I ended up, blacks are still visibly under-represented in front of the classrooms and in research and still virtually excluded from upper management. To be recognized, blacks still have to display anger and take to the streets just to prove their lives and opinions matter. Literary publishing still can't find a black editor or publisher. Police and the courts still appear to be anti-black, and nobody seems to imagine the day — as Howard McCurdy and Rosemary Brown did in the days of Contrast — when Premiers and Prime Ministers of Canada can and will be black too.

So I wonder what Al Hamilton, who died in 1994, would say about today's Canada.

I imagine him puffing on his black pipe, the smoke circling above his head, and saying with a chuckle: "Ah, there is hope, but we still have to fight to make things better."

The tireless newspaper publisher has inspired an award for the next generation: the Al Hamilton Memorial Lecture Fund for Diversity in Journalism. (Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Cecil Foster is a fiction and non-fiction author, journalist and academic. Much of his writing and research is about the experiences of blacks and immigrants in multicultural Canada. Currently, he is the Chair of the Department of Transnational Studies at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

He spends his time between Buffalo, NY and Toronto where he gets to dote on his seven grandchildren.

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