We shouldn’t believe the hype that we are a nation of grand cultural tolerance and equality. My parents are immigrants who moved to Canada in the '60s. My mother came from Jamaica by way of New York. She heard of a slower version of the major American city where she was living, and ventured north to Toronto. My father came from London, England where racial tension was a reality he confronted daily. He grew up with 12 siblings. No matter where the Officer boys went, they appeared as a threat to anyone on the side of white supremacy.
Watch The Skin We're In
I was born in the '70s and I have learned that Toronto is a city unlike any in the world when it comes to diversity. Despite my fortunate experience growing up in a multi-cultural corner of the city, I was not exempt from racism. Imagine walking into a room aware that there is someone who thinks of you as “other” or “lesser”. Playing hockey in my youth, I was often alienated at training camps; people doubted my abilities just because of the skin I was in. I remember how differently I was treated when people noticed my play on the ice. How I was suddenly more acceptable. This had a profound effect on my young view of the world.
When I was a teenager, I lived abroad and played professional hockey in Europe. At Christmas, I spent time with my father’s side of the family in London, England. I met an older cousin who was a practicing Rastafarian in the traditional sense. He opened my mind and inspired new spiritual pathways. I started growing dreadlocks. When I returned home at the end of the season I noticed people looked at me differently. My mother hated my new hairstyle. Time and time again, she expressed her fear that I would lose my life at the hands of police because my hair was dreadlocked.
I didn’t understand the fear black mothers had that their young sons would get hassled, incarcerated or shot dead. At the time, photographs of young black men with dreadlocks were common on the front pages of newspapers and on broadcast news. But they were always doing something criminal. Wearing dreadlocks and having the surname Officer seemed to offend police during standard R.I.D.E. checks. I was treated with suspicion, held for long periods of time, and accused of carrying fake identification. Perhaps it was unfathomable to believe a black youth with dreadlocks could have a name like Officer.
In 2017, Canada is a complicated place. I feel moved and inspired witnessing millions of Canadians come together for the citizens in Fort McMurray. Or gather by the thousands in Quebec to remember Muslim men that were gunned down while praying in their Mosque. At times like this, I can believe that we are a compassionate nation. And yet it is disheartening on a macro level to witness how we confront issues of systemic racism and spend unnecessary time debating cries for basic human rights.
In Toronto, black leaders and community members have criticized police for tendencies of racial discrimination over specific incidents since the mid 1970s. When the Toronto Star newspaper pressed Toronto Police for basic information on carding since 2002, data was provided through freedom of information requests, and maps showing high crime areas throughout the city were released in 2012. Toronto Star reporters analyzed this information and presented a series of articles that disclosed statistical evidence of racial profiling by the police.
"We cannot deny that racism exists here too."
We are capable of love and hate. I understand this to be a choice. It is impossible to achieve peace through hate; and racism is simply a form of hate. I wonder if we can agree about this? Perhaps I am naïve to think peace is a common goal for everyone. But I have to believe it. It is the reason why I know we must continue to have this uncomfortable conversation.
Canada has often been seen as a safe haven for immigrants. I am an example of the opportunity that exists here. But we cannot deny that racism exists here, too. We can continue a peaceful yet resistant approach to issues that run generations deep. And we can reflect on the role we play in these issues as individuals. A movement for peace and justice is not about hate. It is about love and humanity. And that is the entry point to hold constructive conversations about systemic racism.
Watch The Skin We're In, a film directed by Charles Officer.