'We were just gawked at': Mixed-race families common in Canada but still face challenges

Mixed-race unions have been on the rise across Canada since 1991, but couples say they and their children still get treated like a "curiosity."

Interracial unions have been on the rise across Canada since 1991

Jelani Deliovsky, left, with his father, Tamari Kitossa, who is of Jamaican descent. His mother is of Macedonian origin. (Submitted by Tamari Kitossa)

Coming from Jamaica — where the county motto is "Out of many, one people" — Tamari Kitossa is no stranger to mixed-race marriages. 

Nevertheless, even though he now lives in Hamilton, Ont., in another country where mixed-race unions are socially acceptable, he says he still feels tension when he's in public with his partner, who is of Macedonian descent. 

Most recently Kitossa noticed it at a conference he and his partner, Kathy Deliovsky, attended in Toronto. 

I don't think they see themselves as being any different from the other kids — which they are not.- Liane Gillies

"We came out of our hotel room and we were just gawked at," Kitossa said. He said he felt "like some sort of curiosity, like you would stare at animals in a zoo." 

Far from being a curiosity, the most recent data available from Statistics Canada indicates that mixed-race unions have been on the rise across Canada since 1991. As of the 2011 National Household Survey, about 360,045 couples, or 4.6 per cent of all married and common-law couples in Canada, were in mixed unions. 

Kitossa, a professor of sociology at Brock University who also studied mixed-race unions like his own, says the data is no reason to pat ourselves on the back. Despite Canada's outward-facing image as a diverse, tolerant society, couples in mixed-race unions and their offspring still face challenges. 

"The media coverage … gives this romanticized depiction as either Romeo and Juliet fighting the world or 'Canada's a great place! Look at us — we have interracial couples.'" 

'I can't satisfy either group'

Just because more people are intermarrying doesn't necessarily mean they're facing less racism, he says. 

"The moment that we take for granted that we can solve the problem of racism by having people mix, we are in for a rude awakening," Kitossa said. "It's complacency, and it's dangerous." 

Kitossa's son, Jelani Deliovsky, now in his 20s, said his experience with racism growing up added uncertainty to his sense of belonging. 

"I was called a n--ger despite my lighter skin," Deliovsky said. "Once they had seen my mom, they decided to call me a 'wigger.' That is when my identity crisis kinda started.... I can't satisfy either group, and I can't be myself." 

Liane Gillies, 49, a Toronto mother of two mixed-race boys, feels families like hers are becoming more common in her west-end Toronto neighbourhood. Her son Moses, 7, is in a class of about 20 kids, around a quarter of whom are from mixed-race unions. 

Liane Gillies with her sons, Moses and Darwin, and her husband Theo Ono, enjoying some downtime on a trip to Mexico. (Misae Tesfaye)

"I don't think they see themselves as being any different from the other kids — which they are not," she said. 

Gillies's ancestry is Scottish and German, while her husband's is Ethiopian and Japanese. She noticed early warning signs of unconscious bias in Moses, which she has attempted to correct. 

"At one point, Moses made a comment about people with dark skin. I was kind of surprised that he had that awareness," she said. "I showed him some pictures and I said, 'Point out the good people,' and he picked someone white. And then I said, 'Point out the bad people,' and he pointed to the black people, and I said, 'Oh my God.'" 

22% of Canadians belong to a visible minority

Gillies admits it was an unscientific test, but it got the conversation in their home started — something Kitossa says is critical.   

"This conversation needs to be spread far and wide among all Canadians: that we are a diverse nation, have always been, and therefore need to ... prepare our kids to interact with people who don't look like them," he said. 

Gerry Reid, a biracial teenager living in Toronto with her Chinese mother, Scottish father and older sister, identifies as Asian. She says she always made both her parents attend her talent shows and after-school programs because "I'm also half white and people would never believe me. 

"I would love when I would say 'Yeah, look, my dad is white.'" 

Her father, Steven Reid, 50, says he's also aware of the lack of resemblance between himself and his daughter and recalled one of his first encounters when out for a stroll with his first daughter. 

Steven Reid stopping to take a selfie of his family: older daughter Kiana, left, wife Mary, centre, and younger daughter Gerry, on a bike ride in the Blue Mountains, Ont. (Submitted by Steven Reid)

"I can distinctly remember that no one came to me and said, 'Are you the biological father?' But I had person after person — all strangers — asking me, 'Where did you adopt your baby?' or 'Did you adopt your baby from China?'" 

He says that left him wondering whether the current image of what a Canadian family looks like is outdated. 

Canada indeed continues to become more diverse. According to data from the 2016 census released by Statistics Canada last week, 7.7 million Canadians belong to a visible minority, representing 22.3 per cent of the population, up from 4.7 per cent in 1981. 

If the Canadian government wants to assess the impact of policy, then it can't really be using interracial couples as a metric.- Tamari Kitossa

Visible minorities could make up about one-third of the population by 2036, the agency said. 

Mixed unions reflect Canada's diverse history, Kitossa said. 

"Canada began as a mixed-race country" — meaning white Europeans mixing with Indigenous peoples — "so this is part of our heritage and something that we need to understand and embrace," he said. 

It could also serve as a starting point to address racism, he says. 

"Racism is always relevant. Race is one way that humans beings have used to categorize others and lock them into boxes and then project stereotypes about them."

For Kitossa, the rise in the number of mixed race unions is not necessarily evidence that Canada is undergoing widespread social change. The numbers so far are relatively small, he says, and other socio-economic data needs to be taken into account if we really want to start addressing issues of inclusion and inequality. 

"If the Canadian government wants to assess the impact of policy, then it can't really be using interracial couples as a metric," he said. 

"So if you want to look at racism and the metrics for racism, let's look at unemployment rates, let's look at incarceration rates, let's look at poverty. All of those are far better metrics about how we are doing in terms of addressing racism."

For more from the families interviewed in this story, listen to Generation Mixed and hear some of the challenges parents face in raising kids who have two or more races, cultures or religions in their mix. 

With files from Antonia Reed