It seems like everyone – politicians, the media, the police, amateur sociologists – has weighed in on the root causes of guns and gangs in the black community in recent days, but I have another perspective. I came from Jamaica to Toronto as a six-year-old in 1975 and grew up in some of the priority neighbourhoods now being discussed.
Based on my experience, I’ve come to one conclusion: The old-school Jamaicans I knew growing up, as well as other immigrants of the late 1970s and early 1980s, bear little resemblance to the majority of new immigrants and even Canadian-born Jamaicans of today.
My siblings and I were raised by a single mother when it wasn’t fashionable or easy to be one. My mother was strong-willed, conducted herself with dignity and preached to us the value of education. She went to work every day, sometimes at two or three jobs, taking public transit. She refused to sit and wait for a cheque to show up in the mail and didn’t play the blame game we’ve seen in recent days. There was no moaning about lack of social programs – my brother and I played community sports, joined the Boy Scouts and later became Air Cadets. And every couple of weeks, she made us get a haircut. When we walked out the front door, my mother wanted us to “look like we came from somewhere and were going someplace.” I wonder how many of the people who’ve been baying at the moon for the past week can honestly say they live by the same creed?
From my work in schools as a volunteer and a teacher candidate, it seems to me that little progress has been made on the education front. I see students from other immigrant populations receiving academic awards; they are staying after school to receive extra help and filling out university applications. Many black students dream of success but they put little effort into academics. It saddens me to hear that in 2012, their conversations are still dominated by dreams of becoming basketball players or rappers instead of lawyers, accountants or business owners. They can rhyme off LeBron James’s stats and recite the latest song by Drake, but they can’t remember the Pythagorean thereom, let alone how to apply it.
I say you need to develop your own social program and stop waiting for a bailout. There are plenty of free opportunities out there – kids can swim at city pools, and local libraries are open, most with a summer reading program. Does your son or daughter have their own library card? Why not? They can borrow books, movies and CDs from the library. Parents who can’t afford to pay for organized sports can receive a subsidy. There are tutoring and mentoring associations in the city. I know because I spent the past winter tutoring at the Jamaican Canadian Association, located in Toronto’s Jane and Finch area, and most Saturdays I could count on one hand the number of students who showed up for academic help.
As a community, it is time to address these issues in an open and honest dialogue – and it must be initiated by us. Otherwise, we will continue to reinforce stereotypes that our forebears fought desperately to eradicate. Young girls cannot continue to have multiple babies with wannabe thugs who have no career aspirations. Young black males need to understand that respect is earned, not taken with the barrel of a gun. We cannot continue to have three or four generations of one family living in community housing on social assistance. Somewhere, the cycle of poverty and lack of education needs to be broken, and it needs to start with the individual.
My siblings and I didn’t cry the blues over a father who wasn’t present and may not have been a good role model regardless. My mother played both roles effectively, but most importantly, I found the will within myself. There are no shortcuts or substitutes for hard work and success. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I have the blueprint, but I followed one and can attest to its authenticity. Many of those who are claiming to be victims of the system need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Craig Christie lives in Etobicoke, Ont., with his wife and two children. He holds degrees from Ryerson University in Toronto and Canisius College in Buffalo. After years of working in the financial services industry, he is looking to teach at the elementary school level.