Saturday, 17 March 2018 05:36

Niche Businesses in Smaller Cities

By Florence Hwang

Starting a business can be hard. Startup capital, asset management, and just attracting customers; are all obstacles new small businesses must learn to overcome on the fly. But these challenges can be amplified for female immigrants, most especially for those in rural areas that are not accustomed to working with diverse populations.

“It’s a constant battle with people questioning your qualifications because of your background and overlook[ing] your business,” says Tia Luangomba. A small business owner, who immigrated from the Republic of Congo almost 10 years ago. She has worked diligently to build a strong reputation. 

“I realize that people fear what they don’t know [so] I let my work and talent speak for me. If you are confident in your work and your talent, people will trust you and the outcome will be a satisfied customer,” she continues. 

When Luangomba first moved to Niagara Falls, she had trouble finding salons that could do her hair. This would then force her to trek out to either Toronto or St. Catharines in her various searches. Identifying a glaring need within her community, she decided to become a licensed hairdresser. 

In 2012, she came out with her own salon, Hair by Tia Nicole. Beginning as a multicultural hairstylist, in a relatively new country, she didn’t have much support. In need of additional guidance she began a course in business application from the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program. 

“I needed help with the business aspect of things, where to register, how to start, where to build a business, demographics and other important aspect[s] of starting a business,” she admits. 

The program has helped her with social media advertisements, gaining clients, adjusting financial strategies and understanding different legal aspects including taxes and name registration. But it has also benefited her in a variety of other ways as well. 

“Since the course I have a lot more confidence in how I am running my business,” she says, stating that she would have not been able to start her own business in Congo. 

“In my country there is no resources available for one to get help to start a business on their own and with war raging every day and violence, poverty and hunger level rising.  No one has time to even try. Here in Canada there are so much resources, help and places like [the] multicultural center available for anyone who is will[ing] to seek help, work hard enough and achieve their dream,” she says. 

In her own salon, she takes comfort in the effect she has on those around her. “Knowing that I not only have an impact in my clients’ appearance but their confidence makes it all worth it,” she concludes. 

Catering to the Caribbean community

Luangomba’s experiences with a lack of offerings for her individual needs, are one that is all to well known for many immigrants. With Naomie Cesar, it was beauty products for her hair, which she had trouble purchasing.

“Lot of newcomers all of us have the same problem,” says Cesar who originally came from Haiti. 

Like Luangomba, Cesar applied and was accepted into the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program. 

Following completion, she purchased beauty supplies from Toronto and went to local multicultural centres, churches and other places newcomers gathered. But she soon realized customers were not just looking for hair products, they were also looking for other things from their homelands – food. Realizing the demand in the area, she opened a shop in downtown Welland called CaribAfrica Specialty Store.

Soon, she was selling Caribbean staples such as okra and cornmeal before eventually moving to full on dinners. A jack of all trades, she now sells food products as well as makeup and hair products. 

“In the afternoon I make chicken roti. I also make rice and beans, oxtail, soups. Different meals. I explain to them how to cook it at home. It keeps me busy,” says Cesar, referring to her two children. 

But her heart wasn’t always set on entrepreneurship. With previous training as a nurse, she looked at bridging courses upon arrival in Canada, before settling on specialization in foot care. Prioritizing a work-life balance, she looked for alternatives to the scheduling requirements of nursing. 

“I love to be independent, meet other people, be inspired, get inspired. I enjoy it. Get to spend time with my kids. The most special time is to have time with kids and be able to do other things. I get to do other things like missionary work. I get to do those things instead of being somewhere [to] just work,” she says. 

Providing Welland with ethnic alternatives that were previously missed, its clear there are many in the community that are happy with her decision. 

Entrepreneurial Development

Lori Webster is the coordinator of the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program and has worked with the organization for the past five years. Meeting with a variety of immigrant women, she identifies language as one of the biggest barriers for those looking to learn about the Canadian marketplace. 

“We have seen women start businesses in graphic design, commercial cleaning, hair styling, ethnic food store[s], imported products, online grocery delivery, jewelry-making, seamstress, holistic health care, and pet grooming, for example,” says Webster. 

When the program began in 2013, it was originally set up as a two-year pilot project for six programs across Ontario. However, it continues to receive funding almost three years after the initial two-year pilot project. Helping educate immigrant women about the regulations and legal requirements of starting a business in Canada.

Over the years, a total of 102 women have completed the program. And of those, 56 have gone on to start their own businesses within 12 months of graduation.

Although the true success of these start-ups cannot be accurately measured until more time has elapsed, if the 2013 program is any indication, they should continue to thrive. Of the 23 net new businesses started since that initial program, 20 are still in operation.

Coordinators of the project hope to further the progress they’ve made and await a funding decision that could extend it for at least another 3 years.

This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.

Published in Economy

by John Delva in Montreal

Blacks make up Montreal’s largest visible minority. According to the 2011 census, 147,100 live in the city. Why, then, are there so few in our media?

As far back as the 1930s, black journalists in Montreal have been creating and fighting for space for their voices.

Dorothy Williams, strategic development director at Collective Community Services, a local non-for-profit community organization, traces back to 1934 Montreal’s first newspaper aimed at black readers. The Free Lance, which folded in 1941, was meant "to counter the pervasive negative portrayals of Blacks in their city's media [sic]."

Community newspapers similar to the The Free Lance are still where the black media presence is strongest in the city. In fact, Community Contact, which has been around for more than 20 years, has been home to the first bylines of many reporters who went on to high-profile roles in the news business.

Shelley Walcott is one of them. Some 50 Canadian news organizations had turned her down before CNN came knocking in 1997. During her stint there, which ended in 2003, she was first a video journalist for the network, then a reporter for the children’s show “CNN Student News.”

Initially, she attributed the rejection letters to the province’s political climate, still searing over the 1995 referendum—being part of the province’s anglophone minority felt “like I was on the outside looking in,” she said.

Since 2013, Walcott has been a main anchor at New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV. Experience has deepened her hindsight.

“I’ve been in the business for 20 years and when I see people [coming out journalism school] and how green they are, I understand what an employer is looking for. To be successful at anything, you can’t blame anyone else, because it’s very competitive out there."

Breaking into the business 

It can also be lonely. Shari Okeke, a writer and broadcaster at CBC Montreal’s “Daybreak,” recalls being the only black reporter in the Montreal newsroom when she arrived in 1999. She had reasons to be optimistic, though, she said via email.

"I landed a paid internship … at a newspaper in Ontario straight out of journalism school. After that, I was unemployed for about two months while I searched full-time for a job in television."

That’s when Okeke began at CBC’s national newsroom in Toronto in 1997. As an editorial assistant she was “splitting scripts, delivering scripts and rolling teleprompters,” she said. “Even changing toner in the printer.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[V]isible minorities need to push harder, do more networking and really advocate for themselves."[/quote]

She became a chase producer four months in. The producer who hired her later revealed how she had stood out.

“He chose me because while working as an EA [editorial assistant] on his show, I paid attention to the program, contributed as much as I could and demonstrated a clear interest in being more than an EA.”

But while making it in journalism is difficult for hopefuls of all backgrounds, those from non-white communities shoulder heavier expectations, said CTV Montreal’s Maya Johnson via email.

“I do think visible minorities need to push harder, do more networking and really advocate for themselves. And once they get their foot in the door and pay their dues, they need to take initiative and ask for advancement opportunities."

Networking is an obstacle Shani O. Hilton, executive editor for news at BuzzFeed, also talked about—namely how many underestimate it.

"Many of us are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed that we don’t do the networking that seems like bullshit but is actually a key part of career advancement,” she wrote on Medium in March 2014. 

Understanding the Quebecois mentality

But networking does not explain the shortage of blacks in Québec media, said Reginald Rivette. The editor-in-chief of Souche magazine thinks the insular mentality of Quebecois black communities is what restricts their media visibility.

He said media organizations’ disinterest with black communities starts with the latter’s entertainment choices. He explained that while a Denzel Washington or an Oprah may appeal to many demographics in America, this kind of crossover appeal is rare in Québec.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“The idea of ‘multicultural' makes for nice speeches, but it’s a different story in everyday Montreal."[/quote]

This is because second-generation Quebecois blacks favour U.S. celebrities, in addition to stars from their family’s home country—but reject local Québec culture and its celebrities. Rivette said this self-seclusion directly affects who media companies and advertisers covet.

"Québec show business should be bending over backward to sell us products, but if we’re not paying attention to local celebrities, why should they make the effort to reach out?”

He initially targeted a multicultural audience, handpicking Algeria-born Lynda Thalie, who’s based out of Montreal, for the cover of the first issue of Souche. Lack of interest shifted the magazine’s focus to a black-only readership.

“The idea of ‘multicultural' makes for nice speeches, but it’s a different story in everyday Montreal. People from different backgrounds don’t really just come and blend together."

Those who complain about the lack of black representation in the media, he said, should get more involved in local culture. Government grants available to top Québec producers are at every creator’s disposal.

“We can’t ask for the ‘establishment’ to look for us, find us, then give us work as we sit there waiting."

One glance at Johnson’s bio, and you would be hard-pressed using words like “sit" or “waiting.” The recipient of a Canadian Women's Press Club scholarship began at CTV Montreal as an intern in 2005. She was 21. The network hired her in 2012 permanently after close to a decade of freelancing, part-time and substituting work.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Neglecting minority issues comes with serious consequences.[/quote]

Johnson, who begins her job as CTV Montreal's Québec City bureau chief this February, mused that none of this might have happened had CTV not reached out.

"I was hired through a visible minority internship program. There’s no shame in that. The news director and executive producer made it clear to me: I wasn’t there to be a token. They had high expectations."

Shifting the reluctance to publicly address race 

Okeke thinks minority reporters are essential to newsrooms, not just for the stories they can contribute, but what they can contribute to other reporters.

"It's...really important for journalists of colour to share what we're hearing and experiencing in our communities with colleagues in our newsrooms, in order to bring attention to those issues."

Neglecting minority issues comes with serious consequences, she said.

"When people do not feel the media reflects their reality, they can be hesitant to talk to the media at all," said Okeke.

Jean Numa Goudou, editor-in-chief of In Texto, said that ultimately the reluctance to address race publicly falls back on the shoulders of Québec officials. Goudou collided with the race wall first-hand when he asked for numbers related to blacks in the education system. The Québec government referred him to the province’s school boards. They, in turn, ignored his calls. He got an answer after approaching a non-profit organization.

“I was told that the government thinks the Haitian community would be stigmatized if such numbers were released. They do this to be politically correct—but this approach doesn’t help the community,” he said. “The mainstream media has to cover these topics, amongst others, so that people from different races learn more about each other."

Last August, Goudou broke a story on Héma-Québec, the province’s blood services agency, after it began accepting a larger pool of black female donors. The story received no attention in the mainstream media. This disinterest will affect the well-being of all Canadians, including future ones, he said.

“As more immigrants arrive, the public health system has to adapt. Blacks consume media too [and this helps] Héma-Québec to find more donors. This is a public health issue."

This article first appeared on Republished with permission.

Published in Arts & Culture

The celebrated author, academic, and essayist, H. Nigel Thomas, says:“I write because reality mystifies me, and my temperament pushes me to explore it via my imagination. I know that my senses apprehend little more than the masks of reality. My desire, then, is to strip away the mask and send probes into the darkness beyond.”

In the powerful body of work that he has created, Thomas interrogates the complex impact of colonialization and its aftermath, both tangible and less tangible, on black Caribbeans, on those who stay on in their homelands and those who emigrate, showing how race, class, gender and sexuality come into play, within this context, to further disempower and trap people.  Thomas’ latest novel, No Safeguards, is now available and will be officially launched in the fall.

This interview focuses on the themes that continue to haunt Thomas and the inspirations that fire his imagination and commitment.

Montreal Serai



Published in Books

by Eternity Martis (@iratemixedchick) in Toronto

While Caribbean, black and ethnic media as a whole may never be mainstream, they offer a fundamental contribution to racial discussions in Canada by bringing together communities, tying Canada to other countries and establishing a minority voice on a visible platform.

Over the last few months here are just a few of the headlines Caribbean media outlets broke in Canada, that went under reported by the larger outlets.

Caribbean Immigrants Most Affected by New Canadian Citizenship Changes

According to CICS News, new data shows that changes in the citizenship process have caused a drop in the number of immigrants wanting to be citizens.

In 2008, only 26 per cent of permanent residents in Canada received citizenship. That is down from 44 per cent in 2007, and 79 per cent from 2000.

The decline is attributed to the harsher rules and fees established in 2010. The score to pass a citizenship test has increased from 60 per cent to 75 per cent (or 15 out of 20 multiple-choice questions).

Citizenship and Immigration Canada has also raised the citizenship application fee to $530 per adult, more than five times the cost in 2013.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The extra financial hurdle of the citizenship application fee may also deter certain groups of applicants more than others.[/quote]

What is most shocking is the ethnic breakdown of the test’s pass rates before and after the reform. While those from South Asian, Southern and East African communities all experienced a decline of more than 15 per cent, immigrants from the Caribbean had their pass rate go down by almost 20 per cent.

Andrew Griffith, former citizenship director-general who retired in 2013, found these trends through extensive research. While he does not give a reason why Caribbean immigrants experience less of a pass rate than other immigrants, he says education and income levels often determine who passes.

The extra financial hurdle of the citizenship application fee may also deter certain groups of applicants more than others.

Town Hall Meetings in Toronto Tackle Community Issues

According to Share News, the Jamaican Canadian Association, the Black Action Defence Committee and the Jamaican Diaspora Canada Foundation have organized three town halls to discuss and work on community issues, education, unification of African and Caribbean communities and policing.

The meetings were held at the Jamaican Canadian Association in Toronto. The first meeting in January brought a smaller number; however, the following month drew in over 200 people. By the last meeting in March, fewer seats were filled.

Regardless, over a dozen community groups have signed up to partake in the town hall’s coalition group for future changes in the Black community, and activists and various members of African and Caribbean communities in the city have come together to help create solutions.

The town halls also featured discussion on the disproportionate number of Black people in Ontario public service sectors; violence and murder among young Black men and the impact on families; the lack of employment opportunities; and subsequent government policies that don’t reflect the experiences of Black communities.

Diabetes Expo Targets Caribbean-Canadians

Research on diabetes has shown many Caribbean-Canadians are diabetic, or are prone to developing the disease in their lifetime.

In order to raise awareness of diabetes in the Caribbean community, the Canadian Diabetes Association and its Caribbean Chapter hostedtheir sixth annual Black Diabetes Expo on April 25 at the Jamaican Canadian Association in Toronto.

This year’s theme was high blood pressure and its relation to diabetes. Dr. George Dresser, a clinical pharmacologist at Western University, delivered the keynote speech, “Taking control of your blood pressure will control your diabetes management.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The study found that diabetes is the leading cause of death amongst Caribbean-Canadians.[/quote]

Partners of the Expo included the Caribbean Camera, Rogers TV, and TAIBU Community Health Centre.

In addition to the research done on Caribbean-Canadians and diabetes, CERIS, an Ontario research group, conducted a study in 2013 on a group of Torontonians, both Black Caribbean and Canadian-born.

The study found that diabetes is the leading cause of death amongst Caribbean-Canadians. The study also revealed that Black Caribbeans were better at maintaining their physical health.

Black Canadians (and Caribbeans) You Should Know

Just because Black History Month has passed doesn’t mean we have to stop learning. A recent Share article by Murphy Browne titled “Blacks must learn about their history before enslavement” highlighted the importance of understanding African history – not in relation to slavery, but to the culture, progress and celebration of all Africans.

While Browne alludes to several well-known Black historical figures, as well as facts about African history, across the globe, he makes note that there is not much information available on the Caribbean community.

Here is a list of several Caribbean men and women that have contributed to Canadian history:

Lincoln Alexander (pictured above): Child of a Jamaican mother and St. Vincent father, Alexander was a politician and statesman who served as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, the federal Minister of Labour and the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

Dudley Laws: A Jamaican-born Canadian civil rights activist and executive director of the Black Action Defence Committee.

Charles Roach: A Trinidadian-born Canadian civil rights lawyer and activist in Toronto.

Sherona Hall: A Jamaican-born Canadian Black feminist, activist, youth advocate and political figure.

Lennox Farrell: A Trinidadian-born community activist, retired Toronto teacher and head of the Caribbean Cultural Committee.

Herbert Carnegie: Born in Toronto to Jamaican parents, Carnegie was a Canadian hockey player who played despite racial discrimination. He founded Future Aces, one of Canada’s first hockey schools.

Calvin Ruck: Born in Nova Scotia to Barbadian parents, Ruck was an anti-racism activist and Canadian senator.

Stanley G. Grizzle: Born in Toronto to Jamaican parents, Grizzle was a citizenship judge and labour union activist.

Leonard Braithwaite: Lawyer and Liberal politician in Ontario, who served in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

Bromley Armstrong: A Jamaican-born civil rights leader who played a prominent role in Canada’s civil rights movement upon his arrival in 1947.

Commentary: Can Ethnic Media Ever be Mainstream Media?

Last month, Premier Kathleen Wynne (pictured to right, credit: Share News) spoke in Mississauga about the importance of ethnic media in Canada. Wynne addressed the ethnic media organizations present, saying, “The stories that you tell and the work that you do are absolutely vital to shaping the society we all take enormous pride in today.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Ethnic media has the simple key element that mainstream media doesn’t: the “ethnic” perspective. [/quote]

This discussion is both timely and fundamental to journalism surrounding Caribbean culture, and Black communities as a whole.

Ethnic media has the simple key element that mainstream media doesn’t: the “ethnic” perspective. These outlets can report from a position of personal experience and compassion, and are more likely to understand the complexity of stories on race. They ask the questions that mainstream journalists often overlook: What's beneath the surface? How do we cover race issue fairly?

Take for example the Ferguson protests – often poorly covered by Canadian mainstream media, painting protesters as violent, looting animals and anti-white racists, while Caribbean media has helped shine light on the reality.

Or the fact that in mainstream news outlets immigrant success stories are saved for weekend features, while Caribbean media frequently congratulates members of the community.

Caribbean media outlets take what little importance Caribbean issues may have in larger media outlets and place them at the forefront, making them a necessity, rather than a token issue.

That is, of course, if they follow independent reporting standards, and not the models set out in mainstream media.

Eternity Martis is a Master of Journalism student at Ryerson University. She currently writes for The Huffington Post and Bustle. Her work has also been featured on, xoJane and Vice Canada with a focus on race and gender issues.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Caribbean
Monday, 02 February 2015 16:58

Cricket in Canada: Over 200 Years Old

by Monika Moravan (@MonikaMoravan25) in Mississauga 

Cricket is often viewed as an exotic or foreign sport in Canada, but the truth of the matter is that the game has been played in this country for the better part of a century, even before Confederation in 1867. Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, even declared it the young country’s official sport. Take that hockey!

Cricket’s Arrival to Canada

Like so many things, it is impossible to pin down an exact date for cricket’s arrival in Canada. The earliest record of the game is depicted in a painting of a match on Montreal’s picturesque Ile-Ste-Helene in 1785. However, its origins are often attributed to British soldiers engaging in a game following the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. That’s 208 years before the Toronto Maple Leafs won the team's last Stanley Cup!

Just as cricket was originally brought to Canada by immigrants, its growing popularity can once again be credited to newcomers from lands where the sport reigns supreme, including India, Pakistan, West Indies, and Sri Lanka.


For those who come to Canada knowing the sport, it’s easy to pick it up again. But for new immigrants (or non-immigrants alike) who would like to take part, imagine having to learn the axioms and idioms of an unfamiliar sport.

Wickets, bowlers, batsmen and ball-overs. So much unusual terminology to decipher can be very confusing. Now you know how new Canadians feel trying to make sense of, "the skater with wicked flow splitting the D with her twig and biscuit to bulge the twine followed by a wicked celly." Loosely translated, this is cricket-speak for she shoots, she scores.

The ins and outs

Where a hockey game has periods and goals played by six people on each of two teams, a cricket match has innings and runs played by 11 people on each of two teams. Both sports take place on oval-shaped playing surfaces: hockey on a rink, cricket on a pitch. The winning hockey team is the one with more goals than the opponent and the winning cricket team is the one with more runs than the opponent. That’s so similar and repetitive, you say. Seems easy enough to follow, right? Now the fun begins!

Instead of the stick and puck used in hockey, cricket’s main tools more closely resemble those in baseball, albeit with a longer and rectangular shaped bat.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Unlike a hockey period, which runs for 20 minutes of playing time, a cricket inning is based on a pre-determined number of six-ball overs. Translation? Instead of shifts beginning with face-offs, every delivery of the cricket ball from bowler to batsman is known as a ball.[/quote]

The playing surface in hockey is marked with blue lines, face off circles, goal creases and nets. Cricket differs with a 22-yard pitch set within the smaller and innermost of two ovals. Instead of nets at either end of the rink, you’ll find a trio of stumps topped by two bails - smaller pieces of wood.

Unlike a hockey period, which runs for 20 minutes of playing time, a cricket inning is based on a pre-determined number of six-ball overs. Translation? Instead of shifts beginning with face-offs, every delivery of the cricket ball from bowler to batsman is known as a ball. Six balls is a one over. Matches are usually set to 20 or 50 overs regardless of how many days that takes. The exception is premier games such as test or first-class.

[youtube height="315" width="560"][/youtube]

Courtesy of the Mississauga Ramblers Cricket, Sports, and Cultural Club, this footage is from one of the organization's intra-club games and features the Hawkeyes in black and the Blasters in brown.

Seen this before?

Like baseball, it’s the batsman’s job to hit the ball and the farther it flies, the more runs can be scored. The batting team tries to score as many runs as it can in its innings, while the bowling team tries to restrict them to as few runs as possible or get all of their players out. Another similarity is that the best hit – reaching the field boundary - earns four runs. But cricket needs to keep us on our toes so it awards six runs if said shot doesn’t bounce before doing so. Keep those eyes on the bouncing ball.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Keep two batsmen on the field, all players other than the bowler and wicketkeeper from the bowling (pitching) team on the pitch and this cricket stuff is getting easier to follow.[/quote]

The aim of the bowling team is to limit hits and get opposing players out. Sounds familiar, eh? Batsman gets bowled – out  when the bowler hits a wicket with the ball. Other reasons to get an out are:

Leg before wicket - umpire believes ball would have hit wicket if not for contact with anything other than the bat holding hand  

Caught - similar to an out in baseball

Run out – multiple meanings, commonly called if no part of a batsman’s bat or body is grounded behind the crease and the bowling team puts the wicket down while ball in play

Stumped – when wicketkeeper puts wicket down while a batsman has moved beyond the popping crease and not attempted a run

All on-field decisions are made by two umpires. Some matches at higher levels might have a third referee and a match referee.

Keep two batsmen on the field, all players other than the bowler and wicketkeeper from the bowling (pitching) team on the pitch and this cricket stuff is getting easier to follow.

How does it end?

Saying a hockey game ended in a tie or draw means one and the same, that both teams scored the same number of goals. But, in cricket, same words, different definitions: a tie means both teams had the same number of runs when all innings were completed. In timed matches such as Test or first-class, a draw is called when the anticipated number of innings weren’t played.

Got all that? Just don’t try it on ice.

{module NCM Blurb} 




Published in Arts & Culture
Thursday, 13 June 2013 23:54

Our Homegrown Pigmentocracy


by Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar

A couple of years ago, I was interviewed by student Nayani Thiyagarajah at Ryerson University for a video documentary entitled Shadeism. I spoke about shadeism in a Caribbean context, and used the term “pigmentocracy”.   The eventual result of that interview -- an insightful, provocative work which has since garnered over 82,000 viewings on Vimeo -- generated much interest regarding the term I raised. People wanted to know more about this “pigmentocracy” concept.

The term “pigmentocracy” was coined by Chilean physiologist  Alejandro Lipshutz (1882-1980) to describe the detailed and exacting racial classifications found in Latin American societies, where those with less pigmentation (Europeans) held higher status than those with more pigmentation (the Indigenous, Africans, Asians, and mixed race peoples). The amount of melanin determined where you are in the hierarchy.

I first learned the term as an undergraduate in my Caribbean Studies classes at York University in the 1980s, in reference to the social structure of the slave plantation. The term has since regained popularity in a contemporary social science context to re-visit the idea that skin colour might still actually have something to do with one’s life chances in the Caribbean and Latin America today. Lighter skin colour continues to hold clout in these societies, despite independence from colonialism, political leadership by those of African, Asian and Indigenous descent, and “development”. But could the term “pigmentocracy” be applied to Canadian society -- to good old multicultural Canada?   

Many Canadians – particularly those with less pigment – like to think that discrimination based on skin colour doesn’t really exist here. Or they like to (quickly) point out how much less racist we are than the United States. Or how “those” people need to stop complaining and be grateful to be in a country as wonderful as Canada. Or “they” should just “go back where they came from.” I am confronted by these attitudes on a regular basis as a professor of Sociology and Caribbean Studies, confronted by students who do not want to believe that there is racial inequality in Canada, or that “whites” control the majority of major institutions in Canada (political, economic, judicial, educational, the media).

Naming the un-nameable

In fact, simply to raise the term “white” in the classroom can be akin to the sound of a record needle scratching across an LP: schhreeeeeeeeechhhhhh. Did she just say “white”?! You don’t name the un-nameable! Only Black/Native/Asian/Visible Minority can be named. When I challenge these notions, and focus on how skin colour (along with class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, and age) all factor into a Canadian’s life chances, the evidence speaks for itself.

Why do darker-skinned kids form the majority of high school drop-outs? Why are lighter-skinned people the ones heading corporations and sitting in Houses of Parliament? Why are a disproportionate number of Aboriginal and African Canadian people incarcerated despite the fact that there are numerically less of them in Canada? Why are the highest income earners in Canada of European descent, even if they are immigrant?

Sure we have the one or two exceptions: students love to bring up Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama as evidence of this, neither of whom is Canadian and both of whom are statistical anomalies. In reality, the reasons for these discrepancies have to do with white privilege and racial discrimination. Darker-skinned people are not naturally less intelligent or prone to criminality any more than lighter-skinned people are naturally prone to academic and economic success.

Being white in Canada scores you automatic points and privileges that do not exist (on the contrary) for racialized peoples. Study after study has attested to this. In this respect, Canada is, in fact, a pigmentocracy.

Skin bleaching creams

But we have to go deeper than the obvious, structural inequalities to understand how, in 2013, judgements about light and dark skin persist. How do racialized (read: non-white) communities participate in their own marginalization? By supporting and replicating their own internal pigmentocracies, ones they have often inherited from their respective colonial and post-colonial histories.  One example is the widespread use and popularity of skin bleaching creams in many immigrant communities. Immigrant parents pass on to their children the notion that lighter is better. Unfortunately, the kids are growing up in a society that is also telling them the same thing. The second generation (and the third, and the fourth) can’t win. Not only are mummy and daddy telling them to bleach, their teachers, peers, and other agents of socialization (the media, religious institutions, pop cult figures) are telling them that light/white skin colour is more desirable, more acceptable, in short, just plain “good”.

Darkness becomes associated with all things negative: badness, criminal behaviour, low test scores, can’t find a mate, sin, primitivity ... you name it.  The youth either succumb to this indoctrination, filled with self-hatred and low self-esteem, or they rebel. They call out both the dominant society’s messages about their supposed unworthiness as well as expose their community’s own internal sickness, like Thiyagarajah does in her video. My advice to these youth is to try to re-claim the ancient, to go back to pre-colonial times in their own cultures, and look for the signs and the stories that affirm the darkness. If they can’t find these, then they need to re-create their own. Above all, they must not seek to create an inverted pigmentocracy by discriminating against lighter-skinned members of their own communities.

Racialized people themselves need be agents of change in this scenario, firstly by acknowledging that in many respects we do have a pigmentocracy in Canada, that discrimination based on skin colour and the outcome of this (reduced life chances) is a reality.

First Nations

The only exception is the position of First Nations people, many of whom are lighter skinned than, say, people of African and South Asian descent. It is well-documented that, overall, the most marginalized group in Canada are the Aboriginal Peoples: that is why the concept of a pigmentocracy is useful only up to a point. In a city such as Toronto, with its large Caribbean, African, and South Asian communities, the concept may be more relevant than in rural Manitoba or the Yukon. However, if we start at the top (lighter) of the skin colour pyramid, rather than at the bottom (darker) the concept still holds weight. Overall, lighter skinned people hold more structural power than darker-skinned ones. Overall, within our own communities, light complexion is still often favoured over darker complexion (along with other Eurocentric attributes such as hair texture, and eye and nose shape).

We, as first-, second – and third-generation racialized Canadians need to remedy that. If we are darker-skinned we need to love ourselves in our darkness, without having to turn our anger and frustration outwards at our lighter brothers and sisters, or inwards on ourselves. If we are lighter-skinned we need to recognize and understand the structural privilege we have, not abuse that, while navigating the fact that we still experience racism. We need to address “shadeism” within our own communities, and dismantle centuries-old pigmentocracies. Most importantly, we need to stop replicating the divide-and-rule strategy of the colonizer, and unite to fight racism.

Dr. Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University who also teaches in Caribbean Studies. She researches and publishes in the areas of Caribbean cultures and identities; tourism and Caribbean culture; diasporic, transnational and second generation identities; racism and Caribbean peoples in Canada, and African Traditional Religions in the Caribbean.

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