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Vicky Mochama: The voice of Metro News.

After The Party: How Canadians make space for themselves

Metro’s national columnist Vicky Mochama set out across Canada to discover how five different groups are creating space here.

Ani Castillo

Fireworks are fun, but they’re fleeting. What makes this country real are the people and communities that form it. As the country celebrates 150 years of nationhood, Metro’s national columnist Vicky Mochama set out across Canada to discover how five different groups are creating space here.

By way of introduction to her series, After The Party: a story of space.

I think about space constantly.

Coming here 23 years ago from Kenya, the space my family arrived into was right in downtown Toronto. While my mother worked many jobs, my father studied for his PhD, and together they raised the four kids they’d brought with them.

The first space I really remember walking through is the ladder of streets and underground spaces that traverse the leafy streets of Yorkville, where we went to school, to the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library, to the 519 Community Centre at the heart of the city’s Gay Village. On a map, these city spaces connect to one another through fairly straight lines. But in my mind, they're connected by hands.

The hands of my father as he, a Black man, persisted upwards through the ivory tower, literally guiding me through the stacks of Robarts Library. The hands of my mother as we navigated Chinatown to buy the fruits, vegetables, and ephemera of a poor and ambitious life. The hands of my siblings as we walked, sometimes ran excitedly, to summer camp at the 519.

Clasping, we took up space across so many communities. In some, we were given room; in others, elbowed our way in.

Agnes Mochama, the mother of Metro columnist Vicky Mochama, stand in front of the apartment building where she lived with her husband and four children soon after arriving in Canada from Kenya.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Agnes Mochama, the mother of Metro columnist Vicky Mochama, stand in front of the apartment building where she lived with her husband and four children soon after arriving in Canada from Kenya.

Now, I wander those spaces alone. Adulthood has made me aware of how monumental — but also how precarious and undervalued — they are. The lagging, wide-eyed child has been replaced. Matured, maybe. This summer, as Canada 150 festivities heated up around me, I set out from Vancouver to Halifax in search of communities that look like the ones I’ve known.

Now, I think often about how people demand space: how Black activists like Black Lives Matter stood in the streets against police brutality and for Black, trans and queer people; or how Idle No More marched to demand space back for Indigenous Peoples; or how women have mobilized so our bodies can move more safely. The roots of that collection and advocacy start somewhere. It takes place.

While protests like these take over spaces, I wanted to see how people of colour, queer people, Indigenous Peoples and their communities have held spaces. From Vancouver’s Chinatown to Edmonton’s Al-Rashid Mosque to Toronto’s Black Graduation to Winnipeg’s North End, I found people are carving out a space for themselves.

Because we don't all take up space equally. Research shows that the wealthiest 350,000 families in Canada are not just overwhelmingly white, but also likely to live in the same neighbourhoods as one another. This is why I often joke that patio season is for white people; the rest of us just go outside.

The income gap is also a telling racial gap that exposes Canada’s values around diversity and inclusion. Diversity, we’re told, is meant to be our strength.

Despite 150 years of nation building, many of the country’s residents still live segregated lives. In our cities, the way we’ve arranged ourselves, and allowed others to, reveals our society's values.

To begin, there is hostility toward how some exist in spaces. In recent years, there has been an increase in attacks on Muslims. A personal private religion has become a public target.

And while the mainstream (read: mostly white) queer community has built Gay Villages, taking up expansive space, this isn’t true for young, racialized and trans people. For these groups, even the safer spaces are not always a guarantee of safety.

Going from coast to coast, I admit to being naïve, because where I expected unending border free land I saw a patchwork of cropped squares of possession. The stitches of the quilt tightened whenever my plane drew closer to the cities I visited.

Canadian cities, where over half the country's Indigenous Peoples live, are settler spaces. Largely without permission and with impunity, Canada cuts through the borders of nations made invisible.

Racialized, minority, oppressed and Indigenous Peoples have found, and are finding, ways to take up space in cities. Many do so in spite of city governments; others are working with cities to ensure safe and sustainable spaces. For some, the threats to their spaces, and to their safety, are their fellow residents. For others, time has changed the spaces that once belonged only to them. History, the economy, and a more accepting world have moved the boundaries.

We hold these places close even as our grip fades. We hope they’ll be there when we need them.

Coming up in After The Party:

Part 5: Being Black at school

Part 6: Scenes from Caribana

Part 7: Welcome to the Gaybourhood

Part 8: The Indigenous City

Join the conversation and tell us how you make space in this place: #AfterTheParty

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