Black Berry, Sweet Juice:
On Being Black and White in Canada

by Lawrence Hill
246 pages,
ISBN: 0002000202

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The Blacker the Berry
by James Allan Evans

Most Canadians would deny it, but we have a covert fondness for hurting each other. I have vivid memories of my own transition from professor at McMaster University to the University of British Columbia. The British Columbians I encountered wanted to know where I came from. Lawrence Hill notes this Canadian oddity in Black Berry, Sweet Juice: we want to place the Canadians we meet in their proper slots. Hill finds it annoying, and it is. But I owned up. Not only did I come from the East; I admitted that I had even committed the trespass of being born there, whereupon my inquisitors were eager to let me know how much they disliked Easterners. A female colleague made a point of informing me she hated them. On another occasion, I found myself seated beside a white-haired associate dean at a luncheon, and between the soup and the main course, he let me know what a worthless lot Torontonians were. I replied that I had not come from Toronto. I came from Hamilton. "Same thing," said my decanal interlocutor, determined that his insult should not be deflected so easily. Our conversation lapsed.

I learned to live with the prejudice. Eventually I even came to understand it. But the readiness to descend to personal attack, particularly on a university campus, took me aback and the memory of it still does. I learned what the loneliness of the outsider is. Slots are annoying and confining, but it is important to have one. Lawrence Hill's father was black and his mother white. What is his slot in Canadian society? Black Berry, Sweet Juice is a quest to discover the answer to that question.

Hill is a successful writer who was brought up in Don Mills, Ontario, and now lives in Oakville. Don Mills and Oakville are not credible growth regions for victims, and to give Hill his due, this is not a contribution to victimology research. His father and mother left Washington, D.C. for Canada on their honeymoon and never returned except for family visits. They came here to find a less bigoted society, and since they stayed, I presume they were not completely disappointed. His father became Director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which at that time consisted of two people: Hill's father and his secretary. His American relatives had a rhyme which went: "The blacker the berry/ The sweeter the juice" to which Hill's father added two more lines, "But if you get too black / It ain't no use." This book seeks to discover whether it is, in fact, of some use. It is based on interviews with thirty-four mixed-race Canadians as well as nine others, seven black and two white. But mostly Hill reflects on his own experience.

This is a readable, gracefully written book, but its value is compromised by ęCanadianeditionism'. I have purloined the label for this ęism' from Time magazine which launched a ęCanadian edition' after World War II. ęCanadianeditionism' pours the Canadian experience into American molds. A ęCanadianeditionist' author writes an essay on some item of the U.S. experience and whenever ęthe United States' appears in his text, he inserts ęCanada and' in front of it to give it appropriate relevance. Thus Hill asks his readers to look at the history of slavery in ęCanada and the United States'. Slavery in the United States ended with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865, and the Canadianeditionist looks for a similar proclamation ending slavery in Canada. But the only Emancipation Proclamation in Canada that will fit is the Imperial Act of 1833, which formally abolished slavery in Britain and all her colonies. In Canada, it was almost unnoticed, for slavery had already come to an end with a series of court decisions and parliamentary acts. The ęBlack Company' of ex-slaves who fought at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812 had come to Canada because they already perceived it to be a land of freedom. The ęUnderground Railway' was in full operation before 1833.

Yet it is a valid question to ask when a legislature in British North America first recognized slavery as an infringement on human rights. John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada's first lieutenant-governor, put an end to slavery for practical purposes, but his law fell short of outright abolition: it freed slaves aged twenty-five or over, and prohibited further imports of them. Slavery withered away without being outlawed. It was Prince Edward Island that passed the first outright abolition in 1825. There were probably no black slaves left in P.E.I. at the time; yet its legislature declared slavery to be "at variance with the Laws of England and the Freedom of the Country," and abolished it forthwith.

"Let's not lose sight of our history," Hill exhorts us as he nears his conclusion. "Just fifty years ago, thirty U.S. states still forbade marriages between whites and blacks." Schools, restaurants and housing were segregated. Oklahoma enjoined separate telephone booths for whites and blacks. Hill could have added, but doesn't, that in World War II, black G.I.'s were assigned to build the Alaska Highway, where they shivered and froze for lack of proper winter clothing. But ęour history' should include Canada, too. Before Canadians commit the sin of moral superiority, Hill warns, "let's remember a few facts: slavery existed in Canada until its abolition in 1834; the federal government did its level best to prevent U.S. blacks from immigrating to the Canadian prairies in the early 1900s; we allowed black Canadian soldiers to give up their lives in the First and Second World Wars but wouldn't let them sleep in hotels, eat in restaurants..."

Is it all true? The charge that Ottawa ędid its level best' to block black immigration into the prairies seems to refer to an incident in 1910, when blacks in the newly-constituted state of Oklahoma considered founding a colony in Alberta to escape Oklahoma's discriminatory laws, and the Edmonton Board of Trade petitioned Ottawa to keep them out. The Laurier government was on the eve of an election and expressed sympathy. But the 1911 election swept Laurier from power, and the petition died. But there is better evidence for the vicissitudes of fortune of blacks in Canada.

Here is William Thompson, an ex-slave speaking in the mid-1850s about his Civil Rights struggle in Galt, Ont. (now Cambridge): "When I came here, colored children were not received into schools. I fought, and fought and fought and at last it got to the governor and a law was declared, that all had equal rights." C. S. Clarke's "Of Toronto the Good", which described the "Queen City as it is" in the 1890s, told how a black man visiting Toronto from Chatham, found that a Toronto hotel refused him a room, and sued. The case was settled out of court. Hotels were required not to refuse a customer service unless he was disorderly, or gambled. And then there is the extraordinary case of Clara Ford in 1884, which I am researching for a book. Ford, a black seamstress, was accused of killing an 18-year old white youth belonging to Toronto's upper crust, and she confessed. Yet a WASP lawyer undertook her defense pro bono, and an all-male, all-white jury acquitted her after brief consideration. The story is a complicated one, but it is hard to fit it into the template of Canadianeditionism. All of these blacks fought prejudice. But the law, it seems, was on their side.

Yet Hill has defined a problem in our modern multicultural society. Our first census classified the population simply into three groups: French, Aborginal, and ęOther'. However, by the start of the last century, the census was recording race. It still does. Nowadays we substitute ęethnic group' for its synonym ęrace', which has acquired nasty connotations, but the urge to classify remains. But how should a mixed-race person be classified? Does a drop of African blood make a person black? Hill's Canadianeditionism can annoy, but the dilemma he speaks of is real.

And yet, it is real only because society makes it so. Queen Charlotte, the wife of king George III would have been classified as black by the ęone drop of African blood' rule. The abolitionists in Britain looked on the queen as an ally, but otherwise no one thought her nTgritude mattered. ņ


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