learning lessons all life long
My parents were partners in the truest sense of the word. Yes, my father was the “breadwinner” and my mom was the “homemaker” – but no one role was considered more important than the other. There was mutual respect and so much love.
Back in the early ‘60s, finding a baby to adopt was nowhere nearly as challenging as it is today. Premature babies were difficult to place because they often had special needs and required extra care. My mom had a lot of experience caring for “preemies” because all 5 of her children were born early. My brother was born at 5 months, 3 weeks and weighed in at a whopping 3 pounds, 2.5 ounces. The first time I saw him, I remember thinking that he looked like a little plucked chicken.
I don’t recall how it all came to be, but my mom and the Children’s Aid Society partnered up. The CAS would bring a preemie infant to my mom. She would care for them, bringing them to a point where they were healthy, happy infants – readily adoptable. The third little preemie, Warren, had just left our home a week before Christmas. Mom was looking forward to a rest, a Christmas without a baby to care for. Her own 5 children ranged in age from 14 down to 1.5 years old. On Christmas Eve, the CAS called. They had a preemie baby that they couldn’t place anywhere – nobody was willing to take her in. This wee one was known as “Metis” – half French heritage and half Indigenous heritage. My mom couldn’t bear to turn a child away on Christmas Eve, and that is how Gloria came to live with us.
Months passed and nobody was interested in adopting Gloria. Our family decided that she would be ours. We loved her dearly. Dad loved family heritage and felt it was important to know one’s roots. So, the formal adoption process was on hold until Gloria was old enough to decide whether or not she wanted to retain her Indigenous name and rights. The CAS was aware of the decision our family had made and why the formal adoption was on hold.
About 18 months later, we moved to Ottawa. Of course, Gloria moved with us. Mom continued caring for preemies – all together, she took in 10 wee ones and one troubled teen over the course of a few years. Then came a devastating blow. The Ottawa CAS, without any discussion with our family or with the original CAS, determined that Gloria would be better off in a foster home with “Metis” heritage. I lost my sister to another family on my 11th birthday. I recall so clearly not wanting to go to school that day knowing that, when I came home, Gloria would be forever gone from my life. It was around this point in time that my parents decided that their children had experienced enough “goodbyes” – 10 wee ones including Gloria who had been a member of our family for over 3 years.
Life has a way of bringing balance. My cousin, Bill, whom I adored as an older brother, married a lovely young lady by the name of Jackie. As a child, I remember Jackie’s musical voice and her beautiful hair, which she always piled on the top of her head. She was also very ‘60s fashionable. As children, we were completely unaware that Bill and Jackie had encountered ridiculous difficulties finding someone who would agree to perform the marriage ceremony. Bill was of Scottish heritage, with fair hair and fair skin. Jackie was Jamaican, with dark hair and dark skin. They ended up with a ceremony at City Hall. I don’t ever remember thinking Jackie was different from any other member of our family – I do remember wanting to emulate her!
Within a short period of time, Jackie and Bill had a sweet little daughter named Cindy. She was born with a disease that meant her lifespan would likely be less than a year. There were tons of medical expenses. Both Jackie and Bill worked and mom took care of Cindy during the day. We were blessed to have her in our lives for five years - more time than anyone anticipated.
Our parents did an amazing job. We never saw “colour”. Judgements were never made based on a person’s race or religion. Some people were good; others were not – but it had nothing to do with something like how much pigment was in their skin! I clearly remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, followed shortly thereafter by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The turmoil that was the era of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, Nixon and Watergate marked my impressionable teen years. Luckily, though, these things were happening in the U.S., not in Canada. We did not have that level of racism and unrest. Or at least that was what I believed, what my experiences to date had been.
So now I’m in a senior position and looking to hire/promote someone as my assistant. I wanted our receptionist, Charmaine, as my assistant. She was just so personable, bright, helpful. Although my boss thought she may not have enough experience, I fought for her. We made a great team. I knew I could rely on her completely. I trusted her judgement, her intelligence, her ability to deal with some challenging personalities. I wanted her experience in the corporate world to be so much more fair and equitable than I had experienced in the years past.
One evening, we were working late – preparing for a national convention. A friend called up and asked if I would like to join her for dinner. Her hubby was away and we could have a girl’s night giggle. I said sure but explained I was working a little late with Charmaine. She extended the dinner invitation to Charmaine as well. Perfect! So we wrapped up our work and headed on over. My friend was gracious and charming as always. But privately, in the kitchen, she said to me, “You never told me Charmaine was black.” I was gobsmacked! Why would I even have bothered to mention this? Living in Toronto, I enjoyed its multicultural atmosphere. I had close friends whose race and culture were so different from mine. This diversity was enriching! Why had I never noticed or experienced this subtle undercurrent of racism before?
Fast forward once again. My sister and I have moved to Saskatoon. We bought a home within walking distance of downtown. Our neighbour was absolutely fantastic – a high school coach and all-round kind person. He would often mow our tiny front yard patch of grass when he was mowing his own. He always peeked over the fence and said, “Heidy Ho, neighbour!” To which we would respond “WILSON!!!” (reference the TV show Home Improvement if you’re not old enough to understand). If someone was on the phone and he needed to catch our attention, he would signal with a flashlight – perhaps to tell us that our garage door had blown open or some other such nonsense. One day I invited a few friends from work over for a BBQ. I was cooking away on a tiny table-top Hibachi grill when Wilson peeked over the fence and laughed. He offered to wheel over a “real” BBQ and even help to prepare the burgers. Well, of course! Help on a real BBQ in exchange for some supper? Sounds like a deal to me! I was one again knocked for a loop when I discovered that some of my co-workers did not want to eat anything that Wilson had prepared. Oh – did I forget to mention that Wilson was black?
While living in Saskatoon, we heard derogatory tales of Indigenous people and their “welfare wagons” (translate to cars). It was common knowledge that you simply did not hire someone of Indigenous background because they were either drunks, drug addicts or at the very least completely unreliable. It was calmly reported in the news that the local police had, one brutally cold Saskatchewan winter’s night, picked up a couple of young Indigenous men. Rather than process them for whatever the offence had been, they drove out into the country and dropped them in the middle of nowhere. I don’t recall any charges being laid against these police officers.
I was simply devastated. It seemed like everything I knew, everything I believed, was wrong. I knew that there had been racial unrest in the U.S. but to see this happening 30 years later in Canada was beyond comprehension! As we were raised in a family that knew no colour or racial boundaries, we were not in the least bit prepared for a world where this prejudice was so prevalent.
Two weeks ago in Charlottetown, PEI, thousands peacefully participated in a “Black Lives Matter” march for justice and racial equality. Last week, a Black Lives Matter petition was tabled in the PEI Legislature. Gordon McNeilly, the province’s first and only Black MLA, said that this petition was “a historical, powerful starting point to create inclusive human rights on PEI, foster real change and collectively stand together now and forevermore on this Island”.
Today in Charlottetown, there will be an Indigenous Lives Matter – PEI Healing Walk for Justice to raise awareness of the systemic racism, injustices and brutality experienced by the Indigenous people of Canada.
In May, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke of the 3 major evils facing the world: racism, poverty and war. Over 50 years later, we are still fighting these same evils. He said, “For those who are telling me to keep my mouth shut, I can’t do that. I’m against segregation at lunch counters, and I’m not going to segregate my moral concerns. And we must know on some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there’re times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”
Racism, prejudice based on religion, skin colour, gender, physical appearance and abilities, etc. are all behaviours learned from our parents and people of influence in our lives - other family members, teachers, our peers. We need to do a better job raising our children if we ever hope for the world to be a better place. My hope, my prayer is that it won’t take another 50 years to do what is right.