On a bitter winter night in February 2018, I arrived in Montreal, alone, having fled my homeland of Zimbabwe.
I´m a journalist who wrote extensively about Zimbabwe´s political violence, its corrupt handling of the country’s mineral wealth and the suppression of LGBT rights. I often received verbal and email threats that mentioned my journalism. I feared Zimbabwe´s security forces, who act with total impunity, had placed me under surveillance. I no longer felt safe in my own country.
I got a plane ticket to Canada and asked for refugee protection the moment I arrived in Montreal. Canada offered me safety. That generosity is something I can never repay.
I have since become a permanent resident and feel comfortable here, even if my new countrymen constantly make false assumptions about where I’m from.
“Hey, American, what are you doing out in snow like this?” an older white Canadian man grinned at me in my first foray into a bar near the Cremazie Metro Station in downtown Montreal.
I explained that I’m an African from a country called Zimbabwe, next door to South Africa. He nodded but didn’t seem convinced.
I later moved to Ottawa, where I liked to shop at a local farmer’s market. I stopped there one day to grab some “green mealies” (what Canadians call corn) and strawberries at a stall run by bulky farmer and his bubbly wife, both, it seemed, in their 60s. I was rooting through the cobs when I heard her gasp and point to a wooden rack: “Oh, that wild lettuce, Jamaicans love it so much. You cook that lots.”
By this time, I had come to realize that many Canadians assume Black Canadians must be from America or the Caribbean. I didn’t bother correcting her, but the possible reasons behind this common assumption have puzzled me throughout the nearly four years I have lived in this country.
My Canadian landlord, a white man of Irish and French descent, also in his 60s, tells me it’s simply because many Canadians his age vacation in the Caribbean but have never even considered visiting Africa.
This is a reasonable answer, but I think there’s more to it than that. Part of the answer must have to do with immigration patterns. In Quebec, for example, Haitians have a sizeable presence, so shopkeepers in Montreal often think I’m Haitian: “Oh, you Haitians, you are so united …”
This sort of assumption isn’t limited to Quebec. I once had to correct an official outside the Senate chambers on Parliament Hill who also thought I was Haitian.
Even some Black Canadians think I’m from the Caribbean. This can be frustrating, and I sometimes wonder if these assumptions mean we miss out on chances to connect and find out what we share and how we’re different. I want to learn more about what makes Haitians tick. Haitians and other Black Canadians from the Caribbean, once they find out I’m from Africa, want to learn more about me and where I’m from.
Immigration doesn’t explain everything, however. It’s true that Black immigrants to Canada were once overwhelmingly from the Caribbean. But now most Black immigrants to Canada come from Africa. I think the assumption persists because many Canadians haven’t realized how quickly the demographics of Black Canada is changing.
I’m proud to be part of this growing community of African Canadians. I’m also proud of my fellow Black Canadians whose ancestors are from America or the Caribbean. But it takes an emotional toll when so many white Canadians assume they know what I am. I would never say to someone I’ve just met: “Oh, you white people from Germany, you sure love your sauerkraut.” Why does a white Canadian take one look at me and think I’m a lettuce-loving Jamaican?
There are real-world consequences to these kinds of assumptions. When we assume all Black Canadians are from a certain place, we also forget that many Black Canadians have families who have been here for generations. And yet Black Canadians are still scrutinized by everyone from airport security officials to our neighbours who figure all of us are outsiders.
So, to my white fellow Canadians, I say: we Black people come from all kinds of places. Don’t assume. Ask. It’s respectful. And besides, I have stories about Zimbabwe I’d love to tell you.