Documentaries

Think you know what a 7th-generation Canadian family looks like? Think again.

Cazhhmere is a proud Canadian. Her ancestors were among the first Black settlers to come to Canada — her family has spent hundreds of years weaving itself into the fabric of our nation. Despite this deep history, Cazhhmere is constantly questioned about where she is originally from.

Her family has been in Canada for more than 200 years, but people don't believe her because she's Black

The Downey-Collins family has lived in Nova Scotia since the 1600s. (CBC Docs/Deeply Rooted)

This is Cazhhmere. Her family has been in Canada for more than 200 years — but people never believe her when she says she's Canadian.

Cazhhmere is an award-winning director from Nova Scotia. She has directed more than 130 music videos for artists ranging from Kardinal Offishall to The Backstreet Boys. (CBC Docs/Deeply Rooted)

They ask, "where are you from?" She answers, "Canada."

You'd have to go back seven generations for a different response. Cazhhmere's grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents are all Canadian. Her ancestors were among the first Black settlers in Nova Scotia.

"On paper, my family is the most Canadian family you've ever seen," Cazhhmere says. Her relatives are politicians, military veterans, boxing legends — and yet she's constantly questioned about her background.

"People have a hard time grasping the concept of someone who is not white being from Canada," she says.

After dealing with the question "but where are you from?" for her entire life, Cazhhmere —  a prolific filmmaker who has directed over 100 music videos — decided to explore her family's rich Canadian history. The documentary Deeply Rooted traces the story of the Downey-Collins family in Nova Scotia.

'The Fighting Downeys'

Cazhhmere's family is full of superstars. Among the most famous: a series of boxing champions known as "The Fighting Downeys."

Robert John Downey Sr., Cazhhmere's grandfather, was a member of the Black Watch 2nd Battalion Army Boxing Team and the Canadian amateur lightweight boxing champion for 1960.

Cazhhmere's great-uncle, David Downey Sr., is Canada's longest reigning middleweight boxing champion. He was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

In Cazhhmere’s family are a long line of professional boxers including Raymond ‘Sugar Ray’ Downey. Downey won the bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and has been inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame (CBC Docs/Deeply Rooted)

David's son, Raymond "Sugar Ray" Downey, followed in his footsteps — literally. As a 9-year-old, Raymond was let out of school early one day and bumped into his father, who was on his way to the boxing gym. Raymond tagged along. 

"I was just amazed at what I saw," he says. Eventually, Raymond's talent and determination earned him a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea and a spot in the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame.

'Many people don't know that Canada had an all-Black battalion.'

Members of the Downley-Collins families have served in the military since WWI. They've served in all capacities, in every war.

George Alexander Downey, Cazhhmere's great-grandfather, was a veteran of both world wars. He served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion  an all-Black battalion.

"Many people don't know that Canada had an all-Black battalion at a time when the rest of the world wasn't letting blacks join the military," says Cazhhmere.

George Alexander Downey, Cazhhmere’s great-grandfather, was a veteran of both world wars. He served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion — an all-black battalion. They were featured on a Canadian stamp in 2016. (CBC Docs/Deeply Rooted)

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was featured on a Canadian stamp in 2016.

In addition to his legacy as a decorated boxer, Cazhhmere's grandfather Robert John "Bobby" Downey Sr. served in the military between 1957 - 1986. As a military chef, he prepared banquets for Prince Charles and Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. 

Terry Downey, Cazhhmere's mother, grew up on an army base.  "We were the typical army military family. Other than we were black," she says.

Her brother played hockey, her sister was a figure skater. "My family did very typical Canadian things — as did I, growing up" says Cazhhmere.

The Downey-Collins family has deep roots in Halifax's history. (CBC Docs/Deeply Rooted)

Halifax wouldn't be the same without the Downey-Collins family

Graham Downey, Cazhhmere's uncle, was the first Black city councillor in Halifax and the first black deputy mayor in Nova Scotia.

Graham Downey was one of the first Black politicians in Nova Scotia. (CBC Docs/Deeply Rooted)

In the 1960s and 70s, Edward William Thomlinson (Billy) Downey owned Halifax's hottest nightclub: The Arrows Club. The Arrows Club was open until 3:30 a.m. nightly; it hosted big-name acts like Tina Turner and Teddy Pendergrass.

"We thought we owned Halifax in them days," says Cazhhmere's uncle Robert Downey Jr. "Graham was on city council. My uncle David was the middleweight champion of Canada. And Uncle Billy ran the hottest club in town."

In the 1960s and 70s, Edward William Thomlinson (Billy) Downey owned Halifax’s hottest nightclub: The Arrows Club. (CBC Docs/Deeply Rooted)

Deeply Rooted is the story of Cazhhmere's family's past and present — and an exploration of what it means to be a seventh-generation Canadian when the colour of you skin isn't what people expect. 

"[Generations of my family have] contributed in numerous ways to Canadian history and society," says Cazhhmere. "There aren't very many people in Canada (that I know) that can say that about their family." 

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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now