Canada·First Person

My dad denies what colonization stole from us

Jillian Sunderland wants to embrace her Bajan roots, but her dad seems intent to hold onto the British traditions he grew up with before Barbados gained independence.

The British Empire has shaped my family tree in Barbados in ways that ripple to this day

A smiling child licks a lollipop while sitting in a man’s lap.
Jillian Sunderland, as a toddler, sits in her dad’s lap in this photo taken in Winnipeg in 1995. (Submitted by Jillian Sunderland)

This First Person column was published on Emancipation Day on Aug. 1, 2022, prior to Queen Elizabeth's death. It is written by Jillian Sunderland, a PhD student at the University of Toronto.

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I've gone back to the bustling streets of Bridgetown, Barbados many times, but I still feel out of step with the rhythm of life. Despite it being my father's homeland and the fact that I hold dual Canadian and Barbadian citizenship, Bridgetown has never felt like home to me. 

Growing up in Canada, my father never encouraged an interest in our Bajan roots. We avoided dining on traditional dishes of oxtail and pigs' feet and didn't listen to the syncopated beat of calypso music. 

Instead, in most of my childhood memories, my father is dressed in a three-piece suit, reserved and quiet. His accent sounds more British than the soft rhythmic tones of the Creole dialect, more colonizer than colonized. Rather than regaling us with stories of his youth or sharing with us the rich cultural heritage of Barbados, he seemed intent on instilling in us the values of steely competitiveness, conformity, and laudation of authority. His influence continues to haunt my academic work where I commonly fall into rigid defense of rules and the status quo despite not being a "real" doctor as he had hoped. 

I thought my father had turned his back on his life in Barbados and adopted Canadian customs to succeed as a Black immigrant in Canada, but that is only partly true. 

A reserved-looking man holds a smiling baby. They sit next to a white Christmas tree as a smiling boy leans next to them.
Jillian Sunderland sits on her father’s lap as a baby at a Christmas celebration in Winnipeg in early 1990s. Her brother leans next to the pair. (Submitted by Jillian Sunderland)

I now understand that his assimilationist ambition stemmed from his upbringing when Barbados was still a loyal colony of the British Empire. 

Once dubbed "Little England," Barbados was Britain's first slave colony and was under British rule from 1625 to 1966. Slavery in the Caribbean was unique in its brutality as plantation owners chose to work the enslaved people to death and decided it was more profitable to buy newly imported slaves than provide for their survival. Profits from these sugar plantations helped line the pockets of the English settlers and the monarchy. 

Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1834, Britain still ruled in Barbados until 1966 and endeavoured to "correct" the culture of freed West African slaves. Entitled to attend schools for the first time, Black youths like my father dressed in crisp school uniforms, were taught "correct" deportment, English customs, and allegiance to the Royal Family. Through his formal education, my father inculcated British values and customs and became deeply committed to the Crown. These were the values he imparted to my brother and me. 

Yet these distinctly English values didn't insulate me from the racism I experienced growing up on the Canadian prairies. In my lily-white classroom, schoolmates still called me "ape." Teachers insensitively commented on my tightly-coiled hair, provoking audible laughter.
A woman with curly hair reclines in a bed.
As an adult, Jillian Sunderland wears her curly hair with pride. She was bullied for her tight coils as a child. (Jillian Sunderland)

"Friends" rejected my party invitations, claiming their parents had labelled me a "bad seed." Despite sharing a typical Canadian upbringing, race still served as an insurmountable obstacle to inclusion. 

This was the outcome of British imperialism — and it followed my family from Barbados to Canada.

Spurred on by a desire for belonging, I visit Barbados often and search for traces of my family's lineage. But I have been hampered by my father's secrecy over his past life and it's forced me to try to reconstruct my family's history on my own. 

I managed to trace my lineage back to one of my enslaved ancestors before hitting another wall of colonial legacy. Before slavery was abolished, enslaved people were stripped of their family names and forced to take on those of their English owners — as if they were property to be owned. 

In 2021, Barbados severed ties with Britain. It removed the Queen as its head of state and became a republic. My father, being a man of tradition, decried this move. He seemingly holds no ill feelings towards the Crown. After all, he believes his English-based education enabled him to advance and build a successful life as an Afro-Caribbean immigrant in Canada.

Yet in my mind, the brutality inflicted on my enslaved ancestors was too big a cost to pay. Even after slavery ended, the imposition of British customs and education on my dad led to his alienation from his roots, customs and practices. 

And while he may not feel this loss, I certainly do.

While he denounced the toppling of statues of the Queen and calls to remove her as the head of state, I support it. He can't understand why I feel the need to trace my legacy or want to talk about the legacy of colonization of Canada and mistreatment of First Nations.

WATCH | Barbados becomes a republic: 

Barbados severs ties with the Queen to become a republic

1 year ago
Duration 5:25
After more than 400 years of British colonial ties, Barbados is celebrating having an elected, Black head of state for the first time. Many hope the change encourages Barbadians to take control of the country’s future and will be a step toward getting reparations from the British for the atrocities of slavery.

Even now in conversations with my father, there are insurmountable barriers to us understanding each other's perspectives. 

While this happened in the past, I am left with the residual effects of the British monarchy's legacy of unfettered imperialism. To me, the Crown's legacy is one of loss, displacement, brutality, and generational trauma that has made strangers out of kin. 

It is a legacy the Royal Family seemingly does not want to deal with, offering only regrets but no apology or reparation. 

Maybe someday, my father and I will come to understand one another. But until then, I am stuck doing the work of reconnecting with my roots by myself.

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.

A banner for Being Black in Canada.
Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)

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Jillian Sunderland

Freelance contributor

Jillian Sunderland is a PhD student at the University of Toronto where she researches race, class and gender. Her passions include writing, photography, and her dog Karma.