Arts·Black Light

Scarborough: The Backbone celebrates the dynamic suburb as 'this place that makes Toronto what it is'

The positive reception of Canadian indie film Scarborough points to a bigger cultural renaissance taking place in Toronto's eastern suburb

Love for indie film Scarborough points to bigger cultural renaissance taking place in Toronto's eastern suburb

Poets Randell Adjei, Paulina O’Kieffe and Dwayne Morgan at the launch of the Scarborough: The Backbone project at Scarborough Town Centre in Sept. 2021. (Vito Amati)

Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

After an impressive opening week box office on just two screens, the indie film Scarborough expanded to seventeen screens across the country this weekend. This intimate, heartbreaking and beautifully rendered tale told from the perspectives of three children from the Kingston-Galloway community has done the seemingly impossible: it's propelled Toronto audiences to go out and watch a Canadian film. 

Part of the appeal may lie in the name itself: Scarborough, the former municipality once plagued by a negative rep, is having a moment. From landmark cultural events like Nuit Blanche expanding to the region to its growing spotlight as a food capital of the world, Scarborough seems to have captured the attention and the imagination of the zeitgeist. 

Earlier this week, I had a Zoom chat with three poets who have been thinking a lot about the region: Scarborough Walk of Fame inductee Dwayne Morgan, Ontario Poet Laureate Randell Adjei and award-winning artist Paulina O'Kieffe-Anthony. Also known as the Spoken Soul Collective, they are the curators behind the ArtworxTo supported project Scarborough: The Backbone currently on display at Scarborough Town Centre. The name, as you may have guessed, was partially inspired by the hip-hop classic "Let Your Backbone Slide" by one of Scarborough's first international superstars: Maestro Fresh Wes. But the curatorial vision of the collective transcends the song and considers the idea of the backbone as a symbolic salute to those who are rarely celebrated. 

"So much of what has put Toronto on the map is on the backs of people from Scarborough," Dwayne Morgan told me. "The whole idea of Scarborough: The Backbone kind of came from that. The immigrants that do all of this hard, backbreaking work to make Toronto run but at the same time, never get the respect that they really deserve. So we wanted to create something that celebrated Scarborough and really positions Scarborough as this place that makes Toronto what it is." 

There is a graphic display of words like "cheesed" and "waste yute"  that celebrates the Toronto slang that originated in Scarborough via the Caribbean diaspora who call the region home. Local heroes such as former NBA player Jamal Magloire and rap superstar Kardinal Offishall have been re-imagined into comic book superheroes through the illustrations of Joseph Osei Bonsu. A digital playlist by DJ Lewy V is filled with sonic offerings from musicians across Scarborough. 

Rapper Kardinal Offishall is re-imagined as a superhero in a display at Scarborough Town Centre. (Anthony Gebrehiwot)

My favourite element is a series of portraits by photographer Anthony Gebrehiwot featuring elder members from the West Hill United Church. Each portrait is paired with a poem inspired by the subject's life story. One image features a woman named Jean, dressed in a blue shirt with an almost incandescent glow of white hair. She sits in a garden laughing. The poem by Celeste Drakes says "Her presence speaks on her behalf. The angels speak highly of her. She doesn't speak often but when she does it's important." Jean passed away before she was able to see the exhibit.

As of the 2016 census, Scarborough was home to over 600,000 people, with over 73 percent of residents identifying as a visible minority. The majority of the population are immigrants and they come from a diverse array of places including China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Guyana and Jamaica. It is the relative affordability which brought many of these families to an area often segregated from the rest of the city due to limited transit options. Dwayne Morgan explains that the collective wanted to focus on capturing and documenting Scarborough as it currently exists. "There's a big emphasis on creating art that is accessible, art that reflects the people who are there. We really wanted to keep it grounded in what is there right now so that people could actually see that they belong, they're here. We know that you're here."

So much of what has put Toronto on the map is on the backs of people from Scarborough- Dwayne Morgan

This desire to document Scarborough as it is right now and the almost urgent call to connect directly with its current residents hints at an underlying anxiety: this project may one day be considered an archive rather than a reflection. Toronto's claim to the crane capital of the world means that a constantly changing skyline of glass towers has been a familiar sight in the downtown core but less so in Scarborough. However, according to recent reports, the gaze of buyers, custom home builders and developers is increasingly turning east and a once familiar landscape is becoming not only unrecognizable but also unaffordable. 

I asked the collective about the changes they see happening in Scarborough and Randell Adjei noted that "the corporations are definitely flooding in quickly."

He points to the redevelopment of the sixty-seven year old Golden Mile Shopping Mall at Victoria Park and Eglinton as an example. The Daniels Corporation — which has previously worked on revitalization projects in Regent Park — is one of the partners involved in the redevelopment. The plans describe an innovation hub that will exist alongside condominium towers and market rental buildings, ground floor retail and car free space. But within the glossy drawings is another kind of promise: the inevitable loss of a particular kind of community and a rise in class tensions that arrive when infrastructure, institutions and affluent buyers move into previously undesirable neighbourhoods. 

In a region home to few artistic institutions and professional performance venues, Scarborough has still managed to produce a remarkable number of high profile creatives including actors and brothers Stefan James and Shamier Anderson, pop superstar The Weeknd, and comedian Lily Singh.

Randell Adjei is the founder of the youth arts group R.I.S.E. which for years held a weekly open showcase for young artists in Scarborough who were hungry for exposure and opportunities to grow. He recalls that in the absence of formal spaces for gathering, artistic communities in Scarborough would often be found in the basements and homes of different people. 

Part of photographer Anthony Gebrehiwot's series of portraits of elder members of the West Hill United Church congregation. (Vito Amati)

Adjei believes it is the absence of infrastructure and the reality of living in a transit desert that produced the tenacity and determination that makes artists from Scarborough stand out. "I think there's something to be said about not having very much. About having to travel to showcase. Having to travel to learn and having to travel to connect and meet other people. It's almost like you have to work a little bit harder as opposed to folks that live downtown." Although he welcomes the possibility of new arts institutions, he worries that their presence may be a double edged sword. "Bringing these infrastructures to Scarborough is great, but they're not recognizing how it's going to ultimately gentrify the community and really only be accessible for a certain demographic of people as opposed to who traditionally have represented Scarborough."

Paulina O'Kieffe-Anthony is one of the many artists who have left the city entirely due to the rising cost of living. She and her family now live in Windsor, Ontario and she commutes to Toronto for work.

"I often wonder what will be the fate of Scarborough artists as artists generally in Toronto continue to be pushed out of the Greater Toronto Area because it's just too expensive a place to live."

O'Kieffe-Anthony also considered what impact this unaffordability will have on the art itself.

"Toronto is really about just surviving and we know that when you are in a place of survival mode, it's hard to create the kind of art you want to create for yourself. You don't often work on a really creative or experimental piece because you quickly move into commissions, into gigs to just be able to pay rent, and that changes the narrative of artistic creation, not for the better."

However Dwayne Morgan remains hopeful that Scarborough will continue to set the tone for the city. With this increased visibility he sees the possibility of Scarborough transitioning from being the hidden backbone and occupying a more elevated and celebrated position in the body politic of the city.

"Scarborough will continue to define what is Toronto, especially as Toronto becomes more concrete, more cold. I think Scarborough will always be where that lifeblood is. A lot of times people think the downtown core is the heartbeat, but I think there's a greater heartbeat in Scarborough."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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