Poet Bertrand Bickersteth explores growing up Black in Alberta

·4 min read

While growing up, says poet Bertrand Bickersteth, he was always told that there is no Black racism in Canada.

"We are taught that racism happens in the United States and it doesn't actually exist in Canada somehow," Bickersteth told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"So when you're growing up, you experience things that feel racist or different, but everyone tells you, no, no, no, that's not racist. He was just joking, right? Or that they didn't mean it, or things like that. And as a child, you do struggle to understand, well, what is going on here?"

The end result, Bickersteth said, is a sort of "gaslighting effect" on kids, in regard to race and racism in Canada.

"I think it's extraordinarily important for people to understand and learn their history, learn that Alberta has a Black history — for example, it stretches back to the 19th century — and that Black people are not new here. So that they don't perpetuate those kinds of … actually traumas that happen to kids, but also those difficulties and challenges that people have to encounter as they're growing up," he said.

"I think if we were teaching Black history in the schools, then that impact would be more readily felt."

The Calgary poet and writing instructor recently hosted a talk called Nobody Knows My Name with the Calgary Public Library. It explored the roots of his own name — Bickersteth's family is African, but he has a European last name — and what it means to grow up Black in Alberta.

"Being a Black person in Canada, and Alberta particularly, we don't have a recognizable place," he said. "People don't usually see Black people as inherently or naturally Canadian or Albertan. And that was a struggle all my life. People always asking me where am I from — when I'm from here," he said.

"That could be a little bit traumatic on children especially, who don't know how to answer those questions and struggle with their sense of belonging."

Bickersteth's experiences growing up in Alberta have informed his poetry collection, The Response of Weeds, which deals with many questions of identity.

Being from elsewhere

"One of the things that people often ask me about is thetitle, The Response of Weeds.

"I thought it'd be very nice to incorporate this idea of weeds, which are generally just plants, but they're plants that we don't like because they take over," Bickersteth said. "But I thought it was a really nice metaphor to think about these plants as really being from elsewhere. And because they came from elsewhere, they had a certain advantage that those who were already here didn't quite have. And because of that, they thrived."

Bickersteth said he sees a disconnect between the Black Lives Matter movement and the lip service sometimes paid to it.

"I think there is a disconnect … and I want to be cautious here, because at the same time, I do see there are very many well-meaning people, who want change and who want to walk the talk and not just talk it. But I think that we live in a political era, unfortunately, that is deeply divided, deeply partisan, and is more interested in speaking truth from their particular perspective rather than just dealing with the issues that we need to," he said.

"And unfortunately, I don't see a huge rush to change policies or to invest in creating … an environment in which people can actually make these real changes."

If he could change one thing, Bickersteth said, it would start with the schools.

"To actually change the curriculum so that people are learning about Black history ... people just do not know about it at all," he said. "And because of that, they feel that their encounters with Blackness are not legitimately Canadian — and that distances them from having to deal with problems."

Listen to the full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener here:

This story is part of a CBC project entitled Being Black in Canada, which highlights the stories and experiences of Black Canadians, from anti-Black racism to success stories Black communities can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

CBC
CBC

With files from David Gray.