My Toronto is the St Jamestown neighbourhood where I have lived for many years. Mere steps away from where I live is the house where Lucie Blackburn (Toronto’s first taxi cab co-owner) lived the last few years of her life. She died in 1895 and is buried, with her husband, Thornton Blackburn at the Toronto Necropolis cemetery which is at 200 Winchester Street. The lives of this African Canadian couple and their contribution are not included in the history books our children read in school. My neighbourhood, St Jamestown, lies in the northeast corner of the downtown Toronto area. The area is bounded by Sherbourne Street to the west; Howard Street to the north; Parliament Street to the east; and Wellesley Street east to the south. The population of St Jamestown is 73% people from racialised communities, making it one of the most diverse communities in the country. The estimated population of more than 30,000 people from over 100 countries speaking more than 160 different languages is a far cry from the population of the 19th century when it was a semi-suburban area, home to the city's white middle class. Mrs Blackburn was probably quite a curiosity in this neighbourhood in the 1890s. The area was rezoned in the 1950s when the nineteenth century homes were levelled and apartment buildings took their place. As with many downtown areas, grocery stores, pharmacies, dry cleaners, clothing stores, banks and restaurants are located within walking distance (some of us even walk to the Eaton Centre.)
My Toronto is the St Jamestown library which officially opened on October 14th 2004. When the library was opened it became the 99th branch in the Toronto Public Library system, but more importantly it put an end to the frustrating wait for the bookmobile which arrived in St Jamestown every Thursday night. The bookmobile would be parked at the southwest corner of Rose Avenue Public School for two hours and if you missed it then you had to trek to the corner of Parliament and Gerrard to the Parliament Street Library. Even though the St Jamestown library is closed on Sundays and Mondays it is a vast improvement over the frustrating once a week, two hour, bookmobile stop.
My Toronto is the Parkdale Library’s Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection, which contains over 16,000 print and audiovisual materials for adults, children and teens about the Black and Caribbean historical and cultural experience with special emphasis on Canadian material. This collection is recognized as one of the most comprehensive Black and Caribbean heritage collections in Canada. It is also recognized as an invaluable resource for the African and Caribbean community, students and researchers of all backgrounds.
My Toronto is A Different Booklist at 746 Bathurst Street, Ashanti Room at 836 Bloor Street West, Burke's Books and Picture Framing at 873 St. Clair Avenue West and Nile Valley Books at 1921 Gerrard Street East. For those people who want to own, not just borrow from the library, the best books written by and for African people, your Toronto must include these bookstores. If you are a believer in the concept of cooperative economics, the fourth Kwanzaa principle (ujamaa), your Toronto must include not only the bookstores but all the other African owned business places.
My Toronto is the Sunrise Caribbean Restaurant at 507 Yonge Street which is a short walk from 880 Bay Street. My Toronto is 880 Bay Street (Bay and Grosvenor) where the Ontario Bicentenary Exhibit commemorating the 1807 Act to Abolish the British Slave Trade is housed. This is a free exhibit open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. On July 18, the exhibit was declared open to commemorate the 1807 Act to Abolish the British Slave Trade and to encourage Canadians and visitors to Toronto to learn about the history of slavery in Ontario and the contributions of Africans to Canadian society.
Africans have lived in Canada since the 1600s yet we are invisible in the pages of Canada’s history books. We need to correct that situation by advocating for inclusion in the history books that are used in the education system. The coerced, unpaid labor of enslaved Africans contributed to the wealth of Canada. We need to demand reparations and start by supporting the establishment of African focused schools. Our students are pushed out of school at an alarming rate. Many of them are routed through the justice system to provide jobs for people from other communities. It is sad to hear people who obviously do not have all the relevant information, spouting negativity about African students having the opportunity of being educated in a safe, nurturing and culturally appropriate environment. Many of our students need such an environment to achieve success in the education system. We need to encourage those of our students who manage to navigate the white supremacist system and access post secondary education. We know from the example of the infamous “ghetto dude” e-mail that even those who manage to become educated are also “at risk” because of racial profiling. It is exasperating to hear people who are not part of our community telling us what is best for our children. If you do not live in our skin you are most likely clueless to the reality of “breathing while Black.” We need to encourage those of our children who are succeeding in spite of the system in which they are being in many cases miseducated. We need to ignore the naysayers and continue advocating for African centred schools. If our ancestors had been content to accept the status quo, slavery would not have been abolished in Canada in 1834 and in the British colonized Caribbean countries in 1838.
I am confident that my Toronto will include African centred schools as a viable option for our community because we will not give up. The next generation of my family, Mariah, Tyrel, Ama, Ameen, Kehinde and Taiwo must have that option if that is what their parents choose for them. We have waited patiently for too long. Our community has witnessed several generations of our youth, frustrated, disengaged and leaving school without an education, losing opportunities because they have not managed to navigate a white supremacist education system. There are people in our community who have been working diligently and quietly for many years to make this happen, we must support them now when that extra push is needed. Come on family, one, two, three, African centred schools now!! This is my Toronto, this is our Toronto.
Written in November 2007