My Community: The Caribbean Diaspora in Durham Region
In the weeks leading up to writing this article, I was quite unaware of the number of conversations that can blossom when one decides to dye their hair blond. To my surprise, acting on the decision turned out to be a moment of great liberation.
Similarly, when someone says, “may I ask you a question?” The feelings of angst set in as you await an answer, curiosity more often than not breaks the silence. With some hesitation, you hear an indefinite “Yes”.
And in that same way, this story began.
In pursuit of documenting unheard stories within Durham Region, I met with members of the Board of Directors from Sarah MacDonald’s Place (SMP) — a six-story, 63-unit housing cooperative building situated in Pickering, Ontario. At the helm, the building is managed by a dedicated team of thoughtful and passionate leaders. Leaders who graciously volunteer to share insight into the joys and struggles of Caribbean-Canadian history, and the significance of being one of the oldest Black-acquired buildings in Durham Region.
I was joined at a table in a managerial office by Mr. Francis, or Raphael, as he frequently corrected me. We had met only a few weeks prior at a Canadian Jamaican Club evening social, and I approached him with an interest in learning more about Sarah MacDonald’s Place (SMP). Accompanying Mr. Raphael Francis (Corporate Secretary of SMP) are Roy Brown (Associate of SMP) and Roy Gibson (President of SMP).
Our conversation lasted upwards of an hour and a half, excerpts of which have been slightly edited for brevity and included with transparency. We discuss the importance of community, ownership, and the value of not taking no for an answer.
Matthew James (UM): Thank you for doing this, gentlemen… I am grateful for the opportunity. You know one of the main things, I want to ask you as a Black youth, or really as a young Black man, is: What is your definition of ‘community’? What does this mean to you?
Roy Gibson (President): Most people would think, when they see me as a Black person, they think of the Black community. But, that’s not all it is, community involves everybody. This building, we call it the community of Sarah MacDonald’s Place. When we have programs, we have rules and it goes for everybody. Regardless you’re white, black, blue, pink, or whatever.
Raphael Francis (Corporate Secretary): The word community now has broadened its scope in terms of definition, because I belong to a virtual community of people all over the world. We meet together, we offer each other support and care for each other. Even though we meet virtually, we call each other a community. Whether it’s people who live together or people who meet through virtual space, community is people who may share a common denominator. So, here in Durham Region in Sarah MacDonald’s Place, we have a community that not only includes people from the Caribbean but folks from all over who had a common need, for example, for affordable housing.
As I listened and as the conversation developed, we landed on the topic of food. We chatted about local gems, recipes, and the importance of fostering relationships. I’ve often heard stories of the rise of Little Jamaica, the bustling youth subcultures in many of Toronto’s neighborhoods, but what about Durham Region?
MJ: One of the things that strikes me as interesting in Durham Region is the access to resources and information. Perhaps in my graduating from the public high school system, there may be an underlying dichotomy that influences this… One of my motivations for meeting with you today is to capture part of the history of this building, its significance to the community. How long have you been here?
RF: Well, to go back as far as the beginning of the project is concerned, we have to go further back. There was a time in Toronto, whether or not if you believe me, because you’re so young — there used to be signs on the lawn, “No Irish, No Jews, No Dogs, No Blacks.” Many of us have experienced seeing an ad for an apartment, and you show up as a Black person and suddenly the apartment is no longer available, only to call the same number to learn that it is still available. So, we knew that Black people, within Durham Region, in particular, were having issues accessing affordable housing.
A number of us from the community, including the Canadian Caribbean Cultural Association Of Durham, Club Carib of Oshawa, The Jamaican Canadian Association, and the Congress of Black Woman, had a number of seminars and workshops to decide what areas of society we would focus on and one of them was housing. In 1990, when there was a change of government in Ontario and the NDP came in under the leadership of Bob Rae. The focus was on social housing, providing affordable housing for those in need. But what we didn’t know is that this program was in existence for the longest while, but if you’re not in the right place you don’t know about these things. We happened to find out about it, and our first application to the Ministry of Housing was successful. And that’s why we end up with this here. The total funding, $7.6 million. It was the first and only Black-acquired building in Durham Region, administered by, managed by, and acquired by the Black community.
RG: The building was opened on November 1st, 1995. It’s been a while now [everyone chuckles], with about 6–8 years left on the mortgage, but we can do it faster. People will say nonprofits are not to make profits. Not quite true, it’s the way you do it. Follow the government’s rules, and you can put aside some money that you can lump sum and pay off. Like if you own a house, when the amortization period comes if you can pay off at the end of the year, we can do that. We say no, and we build.
Raphael said we got $7.6 million. People would think we got all that money, but what we got from the government was a loan from CMHC for $7.6 million. Because every month we still have to pay our mortgage. We even applied for a second one, and we got it in Oshawa. Bought the land and everything, we had the plans, the land, and even had a groundbreaking ceremony. This was 1993, then a change of government happened and they squashed it. Because of the change to the conservative government, there was another project given to another Black group — I’m not sure if it’s still in existence. I hear yay, I hear nay, but our goal is to keep this in the community for as long as possible. Our Board is predominantly Black, we have about 80% of the members from before because we have the same vision, the ideas of where we want to go. Hopefully, we’ll be bringing new members, don’t mind you might think a lil’ differently, but the game is still the same. To keep it in your hands.
MJ: Interesting… It’s been almost 30 years since this building has been in operation.
Roy Brown (Associate of SMP): Yep, this fall will be 27 years.
MJ: Prior to becoming Board Members and acquiring the building, did any of you have any experience in city-building? One of the pillars of Urban Minds is getting youth interested and involved in the planning process. So, I think it’s inspiring that you all sought out the information to manifest the space that we now sit in.
RB: No, none at all! You know what, when we jumped into this project we knew absolutely nothing about housing. We weren’t always taken seriously, but eventually, someone gave us a figure and said they’ll show us how to get it done. We received great help, we had the support of experts and we learned from them. We took course after course, drafting, attending meetings, and slowly learned the processes.
As our conversation approached the hour mark, I was eager to ask how they’ve managed to adapt and have endurance as members of a growing and aging diaspora. How do they feel the Caribbean diaspora in Durham Region has progressed since the hardships of 20 years prior?
RG: I say this all the time, if you’re not around the table to make changes in decision making we don’t get too far. So, we’ve got to get together and sit around the table. Government tables that is, city hall tables, and so on to make decisions. We had problems with the police and the Black youth here [at SMP] in the early 90s, and we had to fight tooth and nail to bring in anti-racism seminars. Some of the politicians did not want it, because it was probably systemic. It was natural for them to overlook the issue.
RF: Let us put it this way. It is hard to expect people to make changes to a system that benefits themselves and in ways that are advantageous [to them]. When people benefit from the system they themselves institute, why would they want to dismantle it? Because all of sudden now you have to be competing on the basis of merit. I was an educator for 28 years, but when the bank manager looks like them [non-racialized people], the salesperson looks like them, we’re coming here and upsetting the apple cart.
Mr. Francis then shares a story of navigating the education system, he presents the case of the troubles of seeking employment when one is seemingly overqualified or whose identity does not fit into the status quo.
RF: They offered me a part-time position, on a Friday, one day a week at 11 AM. They wouldn’t say we’re not hiring you, but we’ll make it so inconvenient that you’re going to turn it down. So, this was the system in place against us as immigrants and racialized people at the time. I’ve met a number of young people who had never had a Black teacher in high school, the Durham Public School System and Catholic School system at the time.
MJ: As I’m coming to my own, I am grateful for the teachers I did have. I’m beginning to see the nuance at play, as far as recognizing the systemic barriers that one may face when looking for opportunity. What would you say to young people today, to encourage them if they are fearful of approaching these obstacles? What challenges are you facing in engaging the younger generation in the community on these topics?
RB: It’s difficult to get these youngsters into these organizations, if it’s a party they’ll come or things of that nature, but after that, you may not see them again. But you have to encourage them to keep going.
RG: Sometimes it’s us older folks who hold the young people back too. We had a conversation in the car, young people have more “oomph” than we had! Young people now are not taking no as an answer. We built the foundation, and they tell themselves “we are not digging it up, our families have been here too long for me [young people] to regress…”
As a young person, it was uplifting to hear elders within the community speak with great optimism. How did they grow to not be jaded? After all, their efforts to continue to volunteer as Board Members did not come easy. But, with that same thought came the realization that recognizing the importance of your own value. The honesty in being humble, and having the stubbornness to push through adversity. These gentlemen, like their associates and many of the forebearers before them, understood that fundamental concept. They found equity in the sacrifice, understanding that their foundation would build a future of greater security and opportunity.
I would like to thank the Canadian-Jamaican Club of Oshawa (CJC), President Beverly (CJC), and Sarah Macdonald’s Place board members — Raphael Francis, Roy Brown, and Roy Gibson.
Thank you to my parents for creating opportunities and for encouraging my spirit of curiosity.
Matthew James is a Growth Coordinator of Urban Minds.