Explaining the Caribbean to Canadians
Profile of Raynier Maharaj, Editor, Caribbean Camera
For most Caribbean immigrants landing in Canada to live, there was a time when it took some getting used to the idea of being “classified” on arrival.
Not at the airport, per se, but in society. In trying to integrate, they had to explain to their new neighbours, landlords or co-workers who they were.
The term “Caribbean” was practically non-existent. “Caribbean” was translated loosely to “Jamaican” for most Canadians, as it was the only island they knew of, or had visited.
So it became a task for the newcomer to explain where he or she was really from. In Canada, however, that really didn’t matter. You were classified by your race.
Thus blacks from the Caribbean either became Jamaican or African. East Indians were suddenly South Asian, and Chinese were Asian. If you were white Caribbean, then good luck to you – you were either Anglo, European or, happily (for some) just Canadian.
It did not help that at the time (late 1980s) the few Caribbean media houses that existed in cosmopolitan cities such as Toronto, which is where most newcomers ended up, put paid to this classification.
One paper, Share, called itself “Black and Caribbean”, trying to imply that there were distinct differences between the two groups, though its coverage didn’t do justice to that. It was, quite simply, a black publication.
Then there was the “answer” to Share – Indo-Caribbean World, whose pages featured only people of East Indian heritage from the Caribbean with a substantial mix of Bollywood-type news, again adding to the perception that Indians from the Caribbean were similar to Indians from India.
If you were Chinese, White, Middle Eastern or any other race that can be commonly found in the Caribbean, tough luck. There wasn’t any newspaper for you.
Time for change
That was until 1990, when Raynier Maharaj, an enterprising young journalist from Trinidad, “fresh off the boat” as the saying goes, decided to change things.
A career journalist, he landed in Toronto in July 1989 and quickly found a reporter’s job at Share. One of his first encounters with racism came from within his own “Caribbean” community.
One reader who saw his byline in the paper called him up to ask why a “South Asian” like him was writing for an “African” paper.
“I was stunned. It was a real eye-opener for me,” says Mr Maharaj, who said he came from a country where a multitude of races existed in harmony. As such, he had never seen people categorised in racial groups before.
“I suddenly became aware of myself as a racial entity as never before. I mean, I know my background is Indian, I was always aware of that, but it never mattered to anyone, least of all me, what my ethnic heritage was before this.”
Mr Maharaj spent 10 months working at Share, which he found “quite an experience”.
He recalls one incident, going to cover a function hosted by a prominent Jamaican, where he was slighted by the host. Black reporters who showed up were graciously welcomed, seated at a table and given dinner, while he was left to stand by the door.
“I thought to myself, what is this?” he says. “We’re all Caribbean people. Why am I being treated like this? Is it because I am brown?”
He realised, he said, that he was being slighted because he didn’t fit into a “category”. The one to which he belonged, “Caribbean,” didn’t exist in Canadian society.
“The Jamaicans were looking at me as though I was an alien,” he recalls. “Didn’t they realise that I had much more in common with them than I had differences?”
This was when, he says, he decided to change things.
Which part of Jamaica?
“I felt insulted that no one knew me as a Caribbean person. My identity was South Asian – but I had never been to India or any part of South Asia. If I explained I was from Trinidad, Canadians would ask me what part of Jamaica that was. It was ridiculous.”
Mr Maharaj, then, relied on the one skill he knew really well, journalism, as the vehicle to bring about change.
Eleven months after he landed as an “invisible” person in Toronto, Mr Maharaj launched The Caribbean Camera on 6 June 1990.
He took on the challenge to make it a weekly from the start, though he had no real staff and very little money to undertake such a costly venture.
“In order to make a difference, I had to run on the same schedule as the others,” he notes.
“If they were sending out their messages weekly, then I had to do so as well.”
The Camera’s mission statement – to serve Caribbean people on the basis of commonality of region and culture, regardless of ethnicity or country of origin – is as strong today as it was 22 years ago.
Every page of The Camera carries the slogan, ‘Many people, one paper’.
Mr Maharaj says: “We mean it. If you look through our archives, you will find it very difficult to point to any coverage we have done where we used race as a reason for a story.
"Or even find a story that we’ve played prominently that was only featured because of the numbers from that country in the diaspora.
"Every country finds an equal place – indeed, the lead story in our very first issue was about the volcano in Montserrat, even though Montserrat had a community smaller than a football team in the Canadian diaspora at the time.”
Mr Maharaj also drew on his experience to make the Camera a “real” newspaper, as opposed to a community newspaper.
“I didn’t want to follow the model that existed. We were not about to cover the hairdressers' Annual General Meeting or the opening of a new jerk restaurant at a time when our community – the newly identified Caribbean community – was teeming with major social issues that needed to be brought into the public forum for debate.
“We had a high percentage of kids dropping out of school, we had Caribbean blacks being portrayed boldly on the front pages of the mainstream press as violent killers, we had theatre producers determined to stage massive productions that were based on racist stereotypes, there were all sorts of things happening that were pertinent to our community which were not being addressed. I felt that as a newspaper originating in that community, we had an obligation to speak to these issues in a very significant way.”
The Camera, however, soon discovered there was a price to be paid for rocking the boat.
“At the time, the divided Caribbean community was serving the purposes of certain individuals within it who drew power from the fact it was divided.
"There were, for example, so-called ‘leaders’ in the black community who gained fame, and some fortune, from speaking out on black issues.
"And there we were, telling the world that there was no real black community in Toronto – there still isn’t. We argued that there were, are, several black communities, each with different issues, each with different agendas.
"We began eroding the power base of these leaders. They didn’t like us and began speaking out against us.”
Asked to explain the concept of black communities, he noted: “Canada is not like the USA, where there is a defined black community with a collective 400-year history. Instead, we have blacks from all over the world who live in Canada.
"Some have been here, like the blacks in Nova Scotia, for more than 300 years. Some have just landed from places like Ethiopia and Somalia.
"Then we have the Caribbean blacks, who have been here, more or less, since the late 1950s.
"None of these groups have anything in common, save the colour of their skin. So how could anyone try to represent them as a collective? You can’t.”
Finding a niche
At the time, however, mainstream Canada couldn’t tell the difference – black was black. So anyone identifying themselves as a “black leader” got the coverage they wanted, even though the message they were giving was not necessarily in anyone’s interests, especially the non-existent single community they were purportedly representing.
Mr Maharaj says that in spite of these challenges, the Camera quickly found a foothold in Toronto and began a steady growth pattern.
“Readers of all backgrounds, all religions, found that they were seeing themselves in our pages,” he explains.
“We were easy to read. They didn’t feel self-conscious about being an Indian reading a black paper or vice versa. They got the news they wanted, they got valuable opinions on the issues and they saw writers in the paper who looked like them – from a vast array of ethnicities.”
Today, 22 years later, the Camera is considered the main voice of the more than half-a-million Caribbean people in Canada.
It is also regarded as the most credible voice on issues pertaining to the Caribbean, and the Caribbean diaspora, to the extent where it is the go-to source for Canada’s mainstream press for information on anything Caribbean.
“It’s been a fight. It’s been a struggle, and it still is, financially,” admits Mr Maharaj, who says that only in recent years has the paper been able to break into corporate Canada’s advertising budget.
“In the first 15 to 20 years, we had to survive on what we call roti-shop advertising,” he says.
“Corporate Canada would tell us they didn’t need to advertise in our pages, because they could reach our audience through campaigns in the mainstream press, as we speak English. It’s been very frustrating.”
That changed when a study by the Community Newspaper Association of Canada found that 70% of all Canadians got their primary news from community newspapers.
“That’s when they started taking notice,” he said.
The future, however, seems bright for the Caribbean Camera.
“We're focusing now on the electronic age – our website (thecaribbeancamera.com) is one of the leading Caribbean sites out there, with over 1.4 million downloads of our App from the iTunes store and over 50,000 hits a week from around the world, “ says Mr Maharaj.
“We’re reaching far more people than we ever imagined, and we hope they all get the message.
"As far as the Caribbean is concerned, no matter what our ethnic background, which country in the region we come from, we have far more in common with each other than we have differences.
We need to develop that. It worked in the diaspora, it’s time for it to work wherever else we are, including back home.”