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Black Canadians reflect a world of diversity | The Star

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The 1.2-million Canadians who self-identified as Black on the 2016 census also identified with more than 200 ethnicities and came from 170 different countries of birth. Cogitate on that for a while.

In short, they are a mixed-up bunch — a cornucopia of mankind in a basket of Blackness.

So you can take a wild stab and try to “talk Jamaican” to the next Black person you see on the street — “Yeah, mon. Wha-a-gwaan” — but chances are increasing that you might embarrass yourself, whether you’re Black or white.

I can’t tell you how often I sit in a subway car and watch my “brothers and sisters” — alien and foreign in dress and language and culture and experience — and wonder “what’s he thinking” or “what’s she seeing” when they look at me who, on the surface, looks like them.

The skin we’re in so defines us, classifies us, stereotypes us — self-imposed or not — that it masks the complexities that make us tick. And that’s just for Black people who present as Black. My wife is still fussed by people who stare at her, the gears turning in their heads, eyes narrowing, trying to place her on the colour spectrum, and one venturing to ask, ”What are you?”

Yeah, Jamaican Black in multiracial skin will subject you to that.

If there’s an identified group of Canadians who could do with some homogeneity, it’s Blacks. The majority of Blacks among us — with a history of dislocation, servitude, denigration, family dismantling, and centuries of the Black holocaust called the maafa, marked by the Atlantic slave trade — would best be served by a unifying religion or culture or association.

Instead, what you have is a free-for-all, a diversity so diverse it defies — or, at least, confounds — codification. The African diaspora has wide and long tentacles — a function of normal human migration, yes, but particularly the trade in human flesh for slave labour throughout the European imperialistic realm.

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Consider that three out of every 10 Black people in Canada reported having more than one ethnic or cultural origin. And which were the most frequently reported ethnic origins among the Black population? There were the obvious ones — Jamaican, Haitian, Somali and Nigerian — but the top 10 also included French, Ethiopian and, yes, Scottish. Not sure what that says about the omnipresent Scots, but there it is.

Blacks are just as likely as whites to speak English at home, but a higher percentage Blacks speak French at home (28 per cent) than the total population (23 per cent.

Not surprisingly, Toronto has the largest Black population in the country — 442,015 reported in 2016. That’s 37 per cent of all the Blacks in Canada — but the GTA’s share of Blacks has dropped from 47 per cent in 2001.

The fastest-growing Black populations in Canada reside in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, Lethbridge and Moncton. By 2016, nine in 10 Black people lived in a Canadian city, compared to 71 per cent for the general population. The city regions with the most Blacks are, in order, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa-Gatineau, Edmonton and Calgary — each with at least 50,000.

While the Black presence is largest in Toronto, the group is still a small minority, with 7.5 Blacks for every 100 Torontonians. Viewed as a percentage of the population, Blacks in Calgary and Edmonton have a larger footprint than Blacks in Hamilton or Halifax.

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While six of every 10 Black Canadian live in Ontario, it is in the Atlantic Provinces where the Black roots go deepest. The vast majority of Black Nova Scotians (21,910) and New Brunswick residents (6,995) were born in Canada. In New Brunswick, for example close to a third of the Black population has French as their first official language spoken, which is similar to the overall provincial rate.

Quebec has the second largest Black population in Canada — with 319,230 Blacks in 2016 — more than doubled the 131,970 reported in 1996. Those born outside of Canada are most likely to be from Haiti, followed by Cameroon, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and France.

Closest to home, yes, one in three Black Ontarians has Jamaican roots. Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Somalia, Ghana and Ethiopia were the other five most frequently reported. Maybe, it’s sometimes lost on us that half of Ontario’s Blacks were born here.

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Canada has a significant population of Black people, with roots dating to the 1600s, before the British. That population has been fuelled by waves of immigrants from the Caribbean, Jamaica and Haiti at the forefront, and lately by a rush from African countries, many with economic means far above the early immigrant from the Caribbean, but, among them, a number of refugees. Not to mention the children whose “home” is the Great White North, not their parents’.

It short, a Black History Month profile of a community that stubbornly pushes back against stereotypes.

Royson James is a former Star reporter and a freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @roysonjames

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