One day, walking along the main street of a small town, I noticed a Toronto TV producer I knew.
“What on earth are you doing here?” he asked, staring in disbelief. “Black people don’t live in places like this!”
“What are you doing here?” I shot back. He, too, was Black.
Turns out he was there for a funeral, and I was there to visit friends.
We laughed and hugged. I explained that yes, there seemed to be very few people of colour here, but there were some. My own family had lived nearby in earlier years.
But I understood his question. An hour east of Toronto (‘the most multicultural city in the world’), people of colour and even fairly recent immigrants are rare birds.
When we lived on a farm in the 80’s, I went into the general store, chatted with the owner and said: “I’m so glad to meet another Jamaican!”
He turned out to be Welsh. (Yes, there is a Welsh accent similar to the Jamaican.)
We had a good laugh together and sometimes I visited his store just to hear a “Jamaican” accent.
One county over from ours, only 5% of residents are people of colour. The stats for my county are higher, but not by much.
People of colour are so few that I go out of my way to say “Hello” when I see them.
I’ve heard anecdotes about communities that are unfriendly to outsiders of any race. And I’d heard this disturbing rumour more than once in earlier years: that local realtors in a small town discouraged Chinese homebuyers because of an unspoken pact to keep Chinese people from “taking over” their town.
True? I still don’t know. What I can say is this: I was at a sidewalk cafe with friends in that town recently, and just as I remarked on the rarity of people of colour there, four passed us, and then, 10 minutes later, another three.
I joked that they’d been sent by central casting, just to prove me wrong. But perhaps that town is changing.
When a Canadian town, village or farm area remains virtually all-white, what and who are responsible? Is it locals who are unfriendly, or people of colour who won’t leave the city or suburbs?
One obvious explanation: most immigrants settle in Canada’s big cities or suburbs. More likely to find jobs and services there, many immigrants prefer to settle near relatives and others of their own ethnic/language group.
This pattern isn’t new. In fact, it’s part of immigration and settlement patterns in Canada going back hundreds of years.
Then there’s the fact that some Canadians are “city people”, and some are “country people”. Some like big urban centres, and some like villages, small towns or farms.
I’m always in the latter group. Born and raised in a rural Jamaican village, I’m most at home when surrounded by trees, water, wildlife. The place where I live now is like that.
On any given day, I’m more likely to see a dozen birds than a single human neighbour.
Yet, our neighbours are friendly, helpful and supportive. (That matters to me even more, since I have a disability.)
Local shopkeepers are much the same.
“Is everybody here this friendly?” I asked one, the first month after we moved here.
“You know… I really think most people are”, she replied.
“Black woman with a cane,” my husband teased when I told him later. “Everybody’s friendly to you.”
But once we’d lived here for a few months, he admitted that I was right: many people are remarkably friendly, even helpful.
Of course, we’re both former journalists. We’ve worked in every part of this country and in many parts of the world. We’re unafraid of approaching strangers. We’re also used to living in rural communities; we feel at home there. Perhaps that makes a difference.
Finally, we’re proudly, lovingly, confidently Canadian and we enjoy our right to live in city or country. It’s both a privilege and a right.
Are some people in local towns unfriendly to outsiders of a different race? That would be unfortunate for them. Rural areas and small towns need new blood to thrive.
As for my own neighborhood? Without knowing it, we ended up on a street where 25% of the families are people of colour. I have no idea how that happened, but I’m thankful for it. I love small towns and rural areas, and I love diversity.