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first person

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

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My morning started like any other Friday during the pandemic. My brother and I were up early, ready to be at the grocery store when it opened, hoping to avoid any crowds and get our essentials for the week to come. This Friday was a bit different because we had both also taken the day off, hoping to have a bit of a break from work. Looking forward to the day ahead, we stood chatting in line while waiting to pay for our groceries.

“Speak English!” a voice barked at us. Turning around, I saw a woman in her mid-40s staring at us.

“Excuse me?” was the most I could stammer, still in shock at what I was hearing. “Go back to your country! You and your people ruin everything.”

The words hit me like a ton of bricks.

Born and raised in Canada, I had always felt an immense sense of pride about being Canadian. I have also boasted about being from Scarborough, a community on the edge of Toronto that is a part of my identity and has always been a mosaic of cultures, representing every corner of the world. My parents immigrated from India in the early 1980s and, like so many others, left everything behind with the hopes to provide better lives for their future children. They have spent the past 40 years working hard, labour-intensive jobs, barely making more than minimum wage, to raise and educate four children. I am proud to say that my siblings and I have all gone on to hold university degrees; my sister is a certified accountant, while I have a PhD in medical sciences. In a sense, we epitomize the Canadian dream of many immigrant parents and feel so incredibly fortunate and grateful to have had the opportunities that our parents never did.

There has never been any doubt in my mind about how much I love this country, but the grocery-store incident this spring made me question how much this country loves me back. It was the first time I had stared into eyes that reflected pure hatred. The first time someone racially attacked me and told me that my mere existence was a problem. The first time I was truly made to feel as though I didn’t belong.

Anger, frustration, tears, pain … there are so many words to describe the whirlwind of emotions I have felt since this incident occurred. But as I reflect back and think about what hurt the most, it was the silence of those who stood around us and witnessed the attack.

The woman continued her racist tirade, telling me how me and my people have taken things from her and other “real Canadians.” Not a single person spoke up in our defence. Not the other customers in line, nor the staff at the store, even after I reported the harassment to a cashier. (The cashier’s response? “That’s not my problem and that doesn’t mean you should speak to me loudly.” I was so taken back that I just stopped talking altogether.)

That silence of many hurt far worse than the bite of one. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Never has this powerful quote from the great Martin Luther King Jr. rung so true.

I know we are all exhausted by this pandemic and everyone is battling their own battles. I know it’s easier to turn the other way when faced with a challenging situation. But we must be better and we must do better. There’s no other way around it. We have to speak up against the racism and hate that continue to plague our society. All of us, together. Silence is simply not an option. I know as Canadians, we like to think this isn’t a Canadian problem. But this incident is another reminder that we are not immune to racism and that this continues to be a very serious issue, even in a diverse city like Toronto. My heart truly breaks for my brothers and sisters from different walks of life who face similar incidents on a regular basis, some more extreme than others.

Looking to the future, I now grapple with so many thoughts centred around one main question: How much more do we have to do to prove that we are “real Canadians”? How much more do we have to do to prove that we belong? Will my little nieces face similar comments and looks, and be made to feel as though this country isn’t theirs? Is this the future we want for our country?

I was always told by my parents, who had so little, to give back to others. I have tried my best to live by those values. Whether it be community cleanups, fundraising, helping create a youth lounge in the local community centre, holding workshops to teach children about science, and advocating for the rights of women and girls, I have always made it a priority to give back to my community. Last year, I eagerly took on a role where I could help affect the research response to COVID-19. And yet, that doesn’t appear to be enough. That day in the grocery store, I was still made to feel as though I don’t matter and that I don’t deserve the same rights as those around me. So again, I ask: How much more do I have to do to prove that I belong?

Puja Bagri lives in Scarborough, Ont.

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