Black in small-town Canada: From racism to building inclusive communities

Click to play video: 'Living In Colour: Black Canadians share their story'
Living In Colour: Black Canadians share their story
WATCH: Speaking up about the racism and discrimination you endure as a Black Canadian is not always easy. – Jun 12, 2020

Seeing Confederate flags sold and displayed around Stratford, Ont., had left Edward Smith feeling disappointed and disturbed.

The 37-year old, originally from Ohio, moved to Stratford to work as an actor; he has lived in the Ontario city that’s known for its arts and culture scene for 10 years.

According to the 2016 census, Stratford has a population of around 31,000 people. Fewer than 350 identified as Black. 

Last week, Smith was out walking his dog and saw a Confederate flag hanging in the window of an apartment in his building. He snapped a photo and posted it in the community association group with the question: ‘Can we do better?”

READ MORE: What it’s like to rent as a Black Canadian: ‘I don’t even have a chance’

“And then the vitriol came,” he said. Blatantly racist memes were sent his way, which depicted lynching, blackface and language that praised white supremacy.

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While many supported him, Stratford also needs to face the hateful environment that has been created, he said. 

“The community needs to take responsibility for the fact that racism feels welcomed and at home in its midst,” he said. “We need to realize our own culpability in allowing people to hold these views unchallenged.”

Being Black in a small town or city in Canada can hold a different set of challenges when it comes to one’s sense of belonging, multiple residents told Global News. Some may experience both overt and subtle forms of racism, while others find themselves teaching their non-Black neighbours how to be allies.  

In recent months, protests have been happening across the world stemming from the deaths of multiple Black people at the hands of police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. People have also continued to call for an end to anti-Black racism across the country.

Feelings of isolation 

But being Black at this time in a community without many Black people can be extra isolating, says Meghan Watson, a registered psychotherapist based in Toronto.

“It’s not necessarily just geographic,” she said. “That isolation is defined by feelings of hopelessness. There may be triggers around previous experiences of isolation, perhaps instances of microaggressions or macroaggressions and invalidation may arise.”

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Click to play video: 'Discussing race and raising children of colour'
Discussing race and raising children of colour

Watson says Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BlPOC) can feel further isolation if they don’t have an understanding, accepting or supportive community of allies around them.

“That’s going to create some mental health issues where you might see someone in persistent anxiety and stress or hyper-vigilance of their surroundings.”

She says many have long believed that racism may not exist in a country like Canada or that we’re just too “nice,” especially in small-town living, but experiences involving overt and subtle racism still exist.

“There’s a lot of well-meaning individuals who have pure intentions, but it’s deeply rooted in a history of believing in and considering people of colour and Black individuals in Canada as less-than.”

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‘Pain’ from daily microaggressions, racist comments

After feeling isolated and dealing with racist comments living in the small town of Pembroke, Ont., Burgundy Morgan, 23, knew she had to leave.

In high school, she remembers teachers would hammer her with questions, asking where she was “really from.” Some white classmates called her “the whitest Black girl” because of how she spoke, she said. 

“I just kind of went along with it … because I wanted to make friends. I did feel pain from things like that,” she said. 

Burgundy Morgan left the small town she grew up in due to racism. Photo provided by Burgundy Morgan

Pembroke has a population of around 15,000 people and only 75 are Black, according to 2016 census data. For Morgan, the worst experience was how some people treated her natural hair. 

READ MORE: Want to support Black people? Stop talking, start listening

“People were always coming up to me, touching my hair, playing with my hair, always asking me questions.”

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She eventually moved to Ottawa to go to college and doesn’t plan on going back to Pembroke. 

She remembers white classmates saying the N-word around her, not knowing the history of that word. 

“There’s a lot of things that weren’t taught about racism in schools (and) it’s not enough to be ‘not racist.’ You have to be anti-racist and continuously be educating and taking accountability for your actions.”

The importance of building a community

Tristan Barrocks, 36, has been living in Shelburne, Ont., for five years with his wife and children. The town had about 8,100 people, according to the 2016 census, about 750 of whom were Black.

Barrocks, a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, says he has seen how diverse his town has become in just the last few years. In fact, when he first moved from Brampton, Ont., to Shelburne, a few other Black families also moved with him.

“It was definitely a dramatic difference in the sense of the pace of life and also the quality of life,” he said.

READ MORE: Companies aren’t ‘comfortable’ talking about anti-Black racism. Here’s how to start

Now, Barrocks has invested his time in building a more inclusive community for his children. He joined a local parent council to include more Black-focused events and programming within the school system and hopes to bring more extra-curricular activities to students of all backgrounds.

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Tristan Barrocks pictured with his family. Photo provided by Tristan Barrocks

In his eyes, this is a way to expand his community and make it more diverse.

“There is the old-school string of thought where Shelburne is small-town … and we need to keep that vintage style,” he said. “Some of these people have never left Shelburne or been around Black or brown people or Asian people.”

He says that while he has not experienced racism in his town himself, he often deals with racial bias or stereotypes about being Black. But he also has a lot of respect for his local leaders and neighbours — Barrocks says hundreds of people showed up to a Black Lives Matter protest recently.

Click to play video: 'Move to re-name some of Quebec’s racially offensive location names'
Move to re-name some of Quebec’s racially offensive location names

There are things happening (here). There is progress being made,” he said.

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Barrocks says he spent months soul-searching his decision when he first moved and realized he also had assumptions about small-town living.

Tristan Barrocks moved to a small town with his family and is invested in the community. Photo provided by Tristan Barrocks

“We made assumptions people weren’t friendly or people were looking at us a different way … We took the initiative upon ourselves to engage in dialogue.”

The cost of living in a city

Alyssa, a 44-year old woman who has lived in Paris, Ont., for most of her life, says that while living in the town of around 12,000 people is usually quiet, she has faced microaggressions.

Global News has changed Alyssa’s name to protect her identity.

As a school teacher, students have made fun of her lips and the colour of her skin, she said. 

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“I didn’t say anything about it because I was a little bit in shock and numb,” she told Global News.

READ MORE: An 8-hour drive for braids — Why Black haircare is hard in small-town Canada

Alyssa says she would feel more comfortable living in a larger city, as the environment would be more diverse.

“I just physically feel more comfortable there,” she said.

But the cost of living in a major urban centre like Toronto or Montreal is a deterrent that has kept her in Paris.

Racism is a burden for Black people everywhere, but within a city, it may be “easier to bear,” she said. Finding other Black people to discuss what she is going through is close to impossible in Paris, as seeing another Black person is a “rarity,” she said. 

Click to play video: 'Black Lives Matter chalk messages appear then disappear in Athens, Ont.'
Black Lives Matter chalk messages appear then disappear in Athens, Ont.

Watson understands how important it is to be around communities that look like you and support you, but she also understands how hard it can be.

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She recommends reaching out to support groups digitally or trying to build relationships with others in your city or town.

Small-town living may not be for everyone either, she stresses, and if you are planning to make the move, do some reflection first. She says it’s not a Black person’s job to “fix” diversity problems in small towns either.

“Everybody has a different tolerance and understanding of what it means to feel connected to others.”

More information about anti-Black racism in Canada:
Racial profiling and racial discrimination against Black people is a systemic problem in Canada, according to numerous reports and experts.

Black Canadians account for 3.5 per cent of the country’s total population, according to the latest government statistics, but are over-represented in federal prisons by more than 300 per cent, as found by the John Howard Society.

A Black person is nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by Toronto police, a 2018 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found, and Black Canadians are more likely to experience inappropriate or unjustified searches during encounters and unnecessary charges or arrests.

They’re also more likely to be held overnight by police than white people, according to the John Howard Society.

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Black Canadians experience disparities in health outcomes compared to the population at large, according to research from the Black Health Alliance. The Black Experiences in Health Care Symposium Report notes that they often face barriers and discrimination within health-care systems. Black people report higher rates of diabetes and hypertension compared to white people, which researchers published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health say may stem from experiences of racism in everyday life.

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