I’m well aware that Canada isn’t a racism-free utopia, but coming to Toronto as a Black Brit has been refreshing, Davina Hamilton writes
“If I were you, I’d stay in Canada, LOL.”
Despite the prompt to laugh out loud, I felt numb as I read this WhatsApp message from my friend, Melissa, a fellow Black Brit.
I doubt she was laughing either. She was back in London — my hometown — while I was with my husband and our two kids, then aged two and three, enjoying a wonderful holiday in sunny Toronto. It was June 23, 2016 and the U.K. had voted to leave the European Union. Following a campaign, which had focused heavily on immigration, team Leave had proved victorious.
It was a sad day for racial unity. Being Black in Britain already had its challenges. But with the Brexit vote came the validation closet racists needed that it was OK to step out of those closets and voice their “kick-the-foreigners-out” type of rhetoric.
Meanwhile, my family and I were in Toronto, a city, which, just like London, could easily provide the backdrop for a United Colours of Benetton advertisement. Both cities are culturally diverse and both pride themselves on this multiculturalism.
But while Brexit sparked that unofficial theme of “kick the foreigners out,” Canada appeared to operate with a genuinely “all are welcome” policy.
It was this, among other things — gorgeous sunshine and friendlier faces to name a few — that intrigued us enough to plan a return trip to Toronto. But this time, we’d be coming back for a longer stay — five months — to get a sense of whether we could move here for good.
It was a bold move, not least because we decided to return in winter, to see if we could handle Canada’s brutal blizzards. But we’d also be leaving behind our home, our families — parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins — and our friends.
Additionally, our daughter and son were settled in their London nursery — a feat that had taken time for our 2-year-old son, who is notoriously anti-social. So watching them say goodbye to their friends was emotional.
But we had a window of opportunity before our daughter was due to begin school, so we leapt.
We arrived in Toronto in February and were quickly reacquainted with the diversity we had found so appealing on our last trip. And as time went on, we discovered that our Britishness was an added bonus. It has proven to be the catalyst for several conversations that Torontonians have struck up with my husband and me.
Some have immediately recognized our accents. “You guys visiting from England?” asked a sales clerk when we recently visited the Royal Ontario Museum.
Others didn’t place our dialect and so asked the obvious question: “Where are you from?” In Toronto, this simple inquiry isn’t loaded with the bothersome insinuation it tends to come with in London.
In Toronto, I could respond by saying, “England” and not expect any further questions — apart from the occasional, “Cool, which part?” In London, I’ve been asked that same question by white English folks on several occasions, and every time I responded “England,” they retorted: “Yeah, but where are you really from?”
Then, of course, there were the more recent tragedies which hit my city: The attack on Westminster this March, which saw 52-year-old Khalid Masood kill four pedestrians after driving into them with a car, before going on to fatally stab a police officer. And then there was the attack on London Bridge and nearby Borough Market, which left eight people dead.
Both atrocities were declared as Islam-related terror attacks, which served as a catalyst for a rise in Islamophobia.
Sadly, this anti-Muslim rhetoric became typified when 47-year-old Darren Osborne allegedly drove his van into a group of worshippers near Finsbury Park Mosque, leaving one man dead. Osborne, who had reportedly turned against Muslims following the London Bridge attack, allegedly shouted, “I’m going to kill all Muslims” when he carried out his own terror attack near the north London mosque.
Watching all of these events unfold on the news while sitting in our temporary Toronto home was hard. Much as I love my city, I grew weary of seeing social media posts about how “resilient” us Londoners are and how we won’t let these atrocities overcome us if we stand united. True as this may be, I’m tired of the need for resilience. I just want my family to feel safe.
I’m well aware that Canada isn’t a racism-free or crime-free utopia. But being there as a Black Brit was refreshing. Here, my Britishness has (so far) been deemed more intriguing than my Blackness.
At my children’s Toronto preschool — where, incidentally, they were the only two Black kids in attendance — their peers were unfazed by their skin colour and were more intrigued that these two British kids say ‘to-mah-tow’ instead of ‘to-may-tow.’
A fellow mum (sorry, mom) at the preschool engaged me in a conversation about the British Royal family, while another mom told me she’s in awe of the U.K.’s London Underground public transport service.
Here, my unique selling point was my Britishness — and that was a welcome change.
Coming back to Toronto this year has also reaffirmed something my husband and I had concluded during our 2016 trip: Torontonians are friendlier than Londoners.
In fact, last year, my husband and I became so accustomed to returning the smiles and greetings of “hello” from passersby in Toronto that we forgot to break the habit when we returned to London. However, we were quickly reminded that we were back on U.K. soil when my husband, while unloading our suitcases from the car, greeted a passerby with a friendly “hi.” The look on the stranger’s face was a mixture of surprise and suspicion. Yep, we were back in London.
Upon returning to Toronto this winter, we were thrilled to find that even below-zero temperatures didn’t stop people from extending a smile, a head nod or a “hello” as they passed us by. We, however, found it much harder to smile back through chattering teeth.
Seeing our rental car covered in icicles, I was reminded of how a longtime family friend had reacted when he’d learned we planned to return to Toronto in February. A Jamaican man, who, like many Jamaicans (including my parents), aren’t huge fans of icy temperatures, he declared: “Canada? In winter? Yuh crazy?”
Nonetheless, I soon found myself embracing Toronto’s snowfall — because it was proper snow. Not the half-hearted flakes that fell in East London last December. It was snow that settled thickly enough to cause my children to insist we head into the garden to build a snowman. (Naturally, I obliged.)
At the opposite end of the weather spectrum is Toronto’s sizzling sunshine, which we were treated to last year. English summers are notoriously flaky, so it took me a while to accept that, in Toronto, it wasn’t necessary to keep a cardigan and umbrella in my handbag, just in case of a sudden downpour.
I remembered what a fellow Toronto-based Brit had told me: “I love that Canada has real seasons,” she said. “Proper summers and proper winters.” I’ve come to appreciate this also.
So thank you, Toronto for giving my family this experience. I would have been grateful for a heads-up about your raccoons — it would have spared me near heart failure when I opened my garbage bin in the first week of our stay and one jumped out at me. That aside, I’ve come to love my adopted city.
My family and I recently arrived back in our London hometown and we returned with a wealth of wonderful memories.
Farewell for now, Toronto. I have no doubt that one day, we’ll be back.
Originally posted by Toronto Star in June 2017