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A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada

by Cecil Foster

Toronto writer Cecil Foster’s A Place Called Heaven falls generally into the category of books that look for answers to problems in the black community from within the community itself – a category that includes such titles as The Future of the Race, by American writers Cornel West and Louis Gates Jr., and Killing Rage, Ending Racism by bell hooks. But unlike some writers in the field, Foster doesn’t shy away from criticism; he dares to slay sacred cows, and in the process asks some tough questions of the black community and of Canada.

From my vantage point in Montego Bay, Jamaica (where I am writing this review) Foster’s insight that for Caribbean blacks, immigration was, and still is, a status symbol, and that “heaven” often means returning home, from Toronto, Montreal, New York, or London, with money and a reputation of success – has particular resonance. For many Caribbean immigrants, the meaning of “being black in Canada” is found in the microwave ovens, linens – even refrigerators – that accompany them on trips home.

But if, on average, Canada’s Caribbean blacks have fared just as well in material terms as their U.S. counterparts, Foster wonders why so many West Indians – Shirley Chisolm, Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, and Colin Powell, to name a few – have risen to prominence in the U.S., while Canadians of Caribbean descent haven’t.

To improve conditions for contemporary black communities in Canada, Foster urges the study of strategies employed by post-World War II Canadian civil rights activists to abolish draconian legislation, open the doors to more immigrants, and institute ethno-cultural pluralism. The author also provides an interesting summary of black Canadian history, particularly the Canadian government’s attempts through an order-in-council to prohibit “Negro immigrants…deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” But Foster could have focused to a greater extent on the nature of black male alienation in Canada, and less on encyclopedia-like biographies of particular individuals.

A Place Called Heaven is, nevertheless, an excellent 320-page overview of the black struggle in Canada. If it suffers in some areas from overexplication, it does so because of Foster’s journalistic style, which appreciates that truth is often found in the details. Foster’s enterprise is necessary and bold – it blends voices of anger and hope, from the jailhouse and the university, from the booze can and the church – and demands the attention of black and non-black readers alike.


Reviewer: Ken Alexander

Publisher: HarperCollins


Price: $20

Page Count: 325 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-00-638028-X

Released: Dec.

Issue Date: 1997-2

Categories: History