As a self-identified Black Canadian, one of the most common questions I’m asked is “what’s your background?” I’m asked this question so frequently that I’ve dubbed it the proverbial Canadian question. For many Canadians, they have a distinct answer and they are proud to profess, “I’m English,” “I’m Spanish,” “I’m Jamaican” or “I’m Chinese”. For me, however, I’ve never known. My background has always been a mystery to me and I’ve always felt a part of my identity has been missing. When I’ve been asked what my background is, I’ve never had an answer that seemed to satisfy the people asking me, and I’ve never had an answer that really satisfied me, either. It’s an interesting dilemma. For me, I’ve always been somewhat content identifying as Canadian and strictly Canadian. When I tell people I’m Canadian, (my family traces its roots in Ontario to the mid-1800s, before Confederation) I often get a perplexed look, almost as if people don’t believe me. While no one has come out and said this to my face, their eyes often ask the question, “how can someone who looks like you be from Canada?” I’ve heard it all: “Yes, but where are your parents from?” “OK, but where are your grandparents from”. “Oh, you must be from Jamaica or something” It has always seemed to me that Canadians, especially in racially diverse cities like Toronto, need to know your background. Every family in Canada (except First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) has at one point immigrated to Canada. We are a population of immigrants and it seems to make people uneasy if you can’t draw a direct lineage to the old world.
So what does one do if they feel lost in the ethnically diverse sea of immigrants known as Canada? I started at the source and asked my parents. My parents could also be classified as ethnically ambiguous. My father is tall and has features that are often mistakenly identified as East African – e.g. Egyptian or Ethiopian. My mother who identifies strongly as a Black Canadian has, soft, indeterminate, facial features and a skin tone that could be classified as being anywhere from Southern Asia to North Africa. For them they have always classified themselves as Canadian, and rightfully so. They were born here, their parents were born here, and several of my grandparents’ parents were born here as well. When I was younger my classmates would tease me and say there is no way I was just Canadian. My parents always told me I should be proud of my Canadian heritage and assured me that unless I had an Aboriginal friend in the class, someone who say is of Mohawk or Mississauga ancestry, I was probably more Canadian than any of my classmates. While this answer made me proud, it wasn’t really an answer. For me, although I was proud to be Canadian, I wanted what my friends had. Some of my friends could trace their lineage all the way back to England, Italy or China. It was evident that as proud as my parents were to be Canadian, they too didn’t really know where we came from originally. We all know we are black and that our family goes back many, many generations in “the new world”. How many generations, we don’t know. And we believe that our line started mostly from somewhere in Africa, with maybe a little bit from Europe somewhere. But Africa is a huge continent comprising over 50 countries. Which one did we come from?
This is me…
People have always told me I look like I’m from East Africa. While an interesting observation, when doing research on the migrations of Africans it seemed fairly unlikely that an East African family would arrive in Canada in the late 1700s to the early 1800s. Most Black people who ended up in North America during that time were taken from the west coast of Africa and entered North America as slaves. If in fact I am East African how did my family end up in Canada? I had all these questions and no answers.
Luckily for me, I had an opportunity to speak with the people at Ancestry.ca about my desire to really learn where I came from. Ancestry.ca provided me with the opportunity to dig down and discover my family lineage through their new product, AncestryDNA.
Launched in Canada in June 2015, the AncestryDNA test allows individuals to learn about their genetic ethnicity and discover new family connections.
When coupled with Ancestry’s database of more than 16 billion historical records, family history enthusiasts and novices alike can discover even more about their own past – historical records study a person’s more recent past, while DNA results can go back thousands of years. AncestryDNA predicts the locations of a person’s ancestors from 26 worldwide populations, providing a glimpse into the past that goes back thousands of years to a time long before historical records began to be kept.
AncestryDNA test results look at an individual’s entire genome at more than 700,000 locations through a simple saliva sample, providing a more detailed look at a family’s past than Y- chromosome or mitochondrial DNA, which only studies one or two branches of a person’s family tree.
With excitement I followed the instructions, took my DNA sample and mailed it off to Ancestry.ca in Ireland. After six weeks, I received an email that answered all the questions I’ve been longing for answers. It took me a couple of minutes to actually open the email once it arrived. For some reason I was both nervous and excited. What if the answers I received were different from what I had expected? What impact, if any, would the information have on my sense of self? Once I got over my initial fears, I opened the email and was pleasantly surprised.
So what’s my background? I now have the answers:
Seeing the huge variety of countries that make up my mix, it makes me feel even more Canadian. I now know that my ethnic breakdown meshes with the cultural fabric of immigrants that make up Canada. I have representations from Africa, England, Europe and Asia… So my answer to the question, “What’s your background?” I reply, “I’m Canadian, quintessentially, Canadian.”
Discover your background with AncestryDNA