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Rebuilding home as an ethical space

This article concludes our 6 Degrees series on Walls, Bridges, Homes — a response to the emerging global appetite for a progressive narrative around inclusion and immigration. The series framed the thematic focus on 6 Degrees Citizen Space 2017 (Sept. 25-27), a forum presented by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

A year ago, my friend Aly Ndiaye shared with me a foundational yet hidden story of my hometown, Quebec City. Aly, a hip hop artist and historian better known as Webster, was giving me his signature Quebec History X tour — a tour of old Quebec City meant to transform understandings of the Black presence in Canada.

During our walk, we entered the courtyard of my old high school, the Seminary of Quebec. There, in the middle of the basketball field, an odd grey rectangle contrasted with the otherwise white stones. The rectangle had always been there, but I had not paid much attention to it as a student.

Aly explained that at the site once stood the house of Quebec City’s first permanent settler, Guillaume Couillard, the direct ancestor of Premier Philippe Couillard. Our guide then gave us information about the French colonist that his descendant most likely ignores: Guillaume Couillard was not only the first settler of New France, but also its first slave owner. The name of “his” enslaved African was Olivier Le Jeune, and Le Jeune’s story is one of the first known stories of a Black presence in a North American colony.

A discreet plaque somewhere on the Seminary wall speaks of the historical importance of the site. There is, however, no mention of Olivier Le Jeune or slavery on that plaque, or at any of the other sites Aly stops at on his tour. As a high school student, I myself had never heard of Le Jeune; I was never told about Canada’s history of slavery, or even Black history more broadly. And yet, how many times had I stood exactly where this brother-in-chains had once stood, wondering about our place in this land.

The erasure of Blackness

Blackness in Canada has been persistently attacked, erased, and rendered precarious throughout the years. In a spirit of resistance, several scholars, activists, and community members have pushed for a more visible Black history and heritage in the country, calling for a more truthful, complete narrative of how Canada came to be. Many have pointed to the consequences of erasure for youth in need of role models, and advocated for curriculum reforms. Others have sought to shed light on Black Canadians’ scientific, artistic, and political contributions to global knowledge, culture, and movements.  Most importantly perhaps, generations of active citizens have articulated the legacy of this injustice and erasure for too many people of African descent:  the impossibility of belonging, of feeling truly at home.

When Nova Scotians bulldoze Africville, when Southern Ontarians turn a historical Black cemetery into a potato field; when heritage professionals choose do not mention Black history on plaques or monuments in Canada’s oldest European city; when our communities are underserved, impoverished, criminalized, over-policed, over-incarcerated, underrepresented, and deported; every time, the same message is sent, over and over. You are not here to stay. Your presence is temporary. You are merely passing through. You do not belong. Your belonging is a threat.

Who can truly feel at home in a sand castle? One can only seek shelter, until the tide comes in once more. The next person seeking asylum will not find a trace of that old sand castle taken by the sea. She will have to build from scratch, as if she were the first to arrive on these shores.

Where are you from?

If this is not an accurate metaphor for Blackness in Canada, then how is my own Blackness consistently perceived as new and exotic in a town where it has existed for four hundred years? If it is not so, why is Blackness in this country so often met with reactions ranging from “where are you from” to the barrel of a gun?

This where-are-you-from interrogation is too often, in reality, a what-are-you-and-what-is-your-business-here. It is a variation of carding. One thing needs to be clear: for Black folks in Canada, assumptions of not belonging to a space can lead to real, immediate threats to our security. Yet even without the problematic power dynamics inherent in this questioning, giving a straight answer as to our origins remains a tricky exercise for many.

If my ancestors were made to leave their indigenous lands in Africa centuries ago through force and violence, my family came from Haiti to Canada through a more ambiguous mix of volition and constraint. They made a choice — and had the opportunity — to come here in hopes of finding security and a better life. Yet this choice was informed by a political and economic situation well beyond their control —  but not beyond Canada’s.

So have been the lives of so many people of African descent in the Americas throughout the last centuries: moving North, South, East, West, anywhere, and back again, looking for a place that would provide enough safety, protection, and opportunity so that their human dignity would be upheld, and their children thrive. If their location did not provide enough, or if they heard of a better hope, they would pack up and relocate once more, in search of yet another promised land, or at the very least, a better land.

Home, for many, became synonymous with a place of security, respect, equality, freedom, justice, and empowerment. In the words of Rinaldo Walcott: “Home, in the diasporic framework, is an ethical place”. And so it goes, for many of us with the sensibilities of diaspora: the more ethical Canada becomes, the more like home it will feel.

The ungrateful “new” Canadian  

Ironically, people who choose to engage in social justice work are often understood as unpatriotic, pessimistic, or ungrateful towards the society and its institutions; but for many of us, this work and its successes are what make a form of belonging possible.

Oftentimes, conversations about belonging in Canada posit, more or less consciously, that the “home” that is Canada belongs to some more than others. “New” Canadians, or Canadians perceived as new, need to be “welcomed,” or “included,” into a house that can only be renovated by its true owners. Those true homeowners are commonly understood to be the descendants of European settlers rather than Indigenous peoples. They welcome and include the “others,” their “diversity,” if they feel so inclined. At any moment, this inclination can change. In this model, the precarious status remains regardless of your citizenship, or where you where born. Indeed, the “where are you from”s continue. The assumption that critique comes from a place of ungratefulness also continues.

The ethics of belonging 

Without real, practical equality, talk of inclusion continues to sound like benevolence, generosity, charity, or Canadian “niceness.” Only when we have worked towards more equality will we have equal footage in revisiting how we live together, how we decorate this home, and most importantly, how we rearrange, rebuild, and renovate some of its foundations. This is not where we are now.

And so, for those of us who feel that home is an ethical space, our current sense of belonging to Canada stems from what we feel is good, fair, and just about this country. Inversely, belonging withers with each refusal to acknowledge that Canada is home on native land, that Indigenous peoples are its first custodians, and that we need to (re)build those relationships, those foundations. When institutions as important as our schools are named after perpetrators of genocide, feeling at home within their walls becomes difficult. Systemic oppressions and erasures of our legacies further this distance from national symbols.

Belonging develops around communities that share common values and are willing to do the transformative work needed to make this place a true home for all. The impact of such communities reaches far and wide, as with each push they make the country’s institutions look more like their dreams and ideals. In a sense, choosing to join their efforts, celebrate their successes, and amplify their work is choosing to belong. Becoming an active citizen is acknowledging the country doesn’t yet feel completely like home to many, yet believing that it can, with each victory, become a more ethical space.

Ultimately, it is choosing that this hope is worth our collective efforts, energy, and imagination.

Emilie Nicolas is the co-founder & President of Québec Inclusif. She is an anthropologist, feminist, activist, and the 2017-2019 Public Leadership Fellow at the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation.