Suburbia is no home for Black children, and neither are our cities. In the suburbs, they had us isolated, ridiculed and harassed. In the cities, they grouped us together, stole our neighbourhoods, and killed our communities.
Since the 1950s, with the growth of immigration in Canada, Black Canadians have had to advocate against their displacement and the destruction of their home. For example, in Africville, rezoning policies led to the destruction of a Black community that, for over 100 years, was rich in Black Scotian culture. In Cabbagetown (now named Regent Park), a ‘slum clearance’ initiative led to the displacement of impoverished Black citizens trying to survive in a predominantly white city. These political practices caused so much harm to our communities that the term ‘urban’ took on a new meaning in public vocabulary: it became interchangeable with ‘Black.’
Having grown up in the Greater Toronto Area, I observed this same phenomenon in public discourse when discussing certain Toronto communities. Most markedly, Scarborough, a former Toronto suburb (until 1983, when it was amalgamated to become part of the city of Toronto) and the region where my family is from. It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa for university in 2018 that I learned that cities, just like people, are not all built the same.
Living in the suburb of Kanata, my first year in Ottawa was more difficult than I could have ever imagined; the traffic on the very small 407 highway, the lack of adequate public transit, but worst of all: the apparent absence of the Jamaican community. After asking a Haitian restaurant owner if they had oxtail and being met with looks of utter confusion, I quickly realized that Caribbean food in Ottawa and Toronto had two very different meanings. As a recent high school graduate, I naively thought that my little corner of the planet -where I could find several family-owned Jamaican restaurants every few blocks- was a Canadian reality. It only took me a few weeks to realize it was only but a Toronto reality.
A year later, when I moved into the neighbourhood of Vanier, close to Ottawa’s downtown core, I was once again reminded that people in Ottawa were very different than the community I missed back home. While speaking to my roommate about being from the town of Ajax, “15 minutes from Scarborough”, they distastefully replied: “Oh, I don’t know much about Scarborough; I just heard all the Black people live there.”
Little did they know, my father, a Black man of Jamaican descent, was one of the first ‘Black people’ who had lived there, along with my grandmother, my grandfather, and my multiple aunts and uncles.
This interaction came to me as no surprise. As a mixed woman, I was used to other -white- Canadians mistaking me as non-Black. However, I hadn’t thought about how I also encountered, to the same extent, assumptions and stereotypes about the people who live in my family’s neighbourhoods. Growing up in a suburb, I was sheltered from the many realities of being raised in regions closer to Toronto’s core. As a result, I was not able to distinguish those differences until I was much older. It wasn’t until I spent a year of high school in the York-region suburb of Vaughan that I realized how much demographic differences matter, especially when you’re Black.
In Vaughan, I was called “a mutt,” was asked if I was adopted, was told I “added diversity” to my Cross Country team, and went through many more odd encounters. Unlike Ajax, which has the highest Black population percentage of any major Canadian municipality (16%), I was suddenly existing in a world where no one looked like me. When telling my classmates, I lived ‘not too far’ from Scarborough (because most individuals in the GTA unfortunately and hilariously cannot geographically locate Ajax), I saw their eyes light up in excitement: “Oh, I go to Scarborough all the time, you know… to play basketball!” or “Oh your Jamaican side is from Scarborough? That makes sense!”. Despite never being explicitly told, it became apparent that somehow, the region was explicative to my Blackness. To those living on the outside, Scarborough had taken on the same meaning as ‘urban.’
However, unlike my ignorant classmates, my imaginings of Scarborough were moulded through my father’s stories about his suburban childhood. A childhood on Wolfe Avenue where he grew up, where little Black boys ran across their green front yards, played street hockey, and treacherously walked by the neighbouring railroad track. This suburb was not “where all the Black people live,” but instead quite the opposite. In the 50s and 60s, Scarborough was a predominantly white region. My father and his brothers quickly learned to fight to defend themselves against their not-so-welcoming neighbours. Despite being Canadian-born, they couldn’t help but stand out in schools, workspaces, and even restaurants. They were labelled as immigrants, an unwanted bunch who had no place in white suburbia. Bromley Armstrong, my grandfather, civil rights leader, and Scarborough resident, travelled across Ontario to fight for the rights of Black people in Canada. In a town that was home to many who had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, Dresden, Ontario, my grandfather organized ‘sit-ins’ in restaurants that provided “no service for Blacks.” Unironically, around this period, poisoned chocolates addressed to his 15-year-old daughter Linda were placed on the doorstep of our family’s suburban home. As Linda (my aunt) ate the treats with friends, the chocolates coated with a poisonous substance -similar to drain-cleaner- caused burns to their tongues and even burned their fingers and legs as they spat it out. A racist neighbour would later plead guilty to sending the tainted food through the mail; he intended to do bodily harm. My aunt Linda went on to share her story with various local newspapers.
These stories are how I, and many other Black folks in my community, know Scarborough. It is a Scarborough that is far from ‘urban’; a Scarborough where Black people did not originally belong but instead fought for their very survival. Today, despite its rapid development and demographic changes, the community faces new struggles. Gentrification and modern forms of urban renewal have led many to share their stories (like my aunt Linda) or organize protests (like my grandfather Bromley). Yet, these aren’t the stories we hear when we speak of Scarborough. I fear that false notions perpetuated about Scarborough being an ‘urban’ and unattractive region full of Black immigrants may lead to its very destruction. I fear the same destruction which took place through urban renewal programs aimed to ‘revitalize’ and ‘improve’ other marginalized Canadian communities. Not only are these notions false, but they also undermine my familial history and the countless realities of Black Scarborough residents who have seen the community evolve.
Scarborough is not a community “where all the Black people live,” but instead one where Black people have waged for their belonging and thrived, despite all odds.