chelby photo

On Being My Mother’s Daughter

My mother fought to keep me.

Her parents didn’t want her to. My father wasn’t a citizen and was barely scrapping together a living for them. She had always had trouble keeping a job due to her social anxiety and the fact that often her mother would get her fired so that she would have to return back home to live with her. I also was going to be born Black at a time when that wasn’t entirely acceptable in this city. Abortion or Adoption were the options her mother had given her.

A young family doctor promised her that she would do whatever she could to help her keep me. Years later, after my mother’s overdose, my family doctor would tell me this story, a story my mother had told me often herself when I was a child, but which I hadn’t heard for over two decades. My doctor was giving me the story so that I would hold on to this life, after I had once again come close to suicide in the wake of losing my mother.

Holding on to life has always been a struggle for me, just as it was a struggle for my mother. When the court cases started and my grandfather was finally brought to justice, she began to deteriorate, physically and mentally. A lot of this was precipitated by the escalation of psychological abuse from my grandmother, who would eventually also end up arrested for hiring a hit man to kill my aunt.

My mother began to threaten to commit suicide and I found myself doing everything I could just to stay at home and be with her. My own mental health issues were identified early on, I remember having to see a social worker at school who told me that I needed to make sure I didn’t repeat the cycle in my family between mother’s and daughter’s. She said I had to make sure I became my own person. I thought I understood what she meant then. I already thought I was my own person and that I was the sanest person in my family. It was only when my mother passed I realized that I really hadn’t become my own person.

My mother raised me to be her champion, her confidante, her protector. These were roles I can remember being tasked with around the age of 4 or 5. It meant that as we grew up, both of us never really became adults. My mother was always in some ways my child and I was always in some ways never independent enough from her to be really considered an adult. So when she died I felt both the anger of a child being abandoned and the guilt of a parent who felt responsible for not being able to prevent her child from hurting herself. And the whole purpose of my life was erased. I had failed to protect her from herself.

On Being My Father’s Daughter

My father fought to keep me.

He withdrew from studying languages at Carleton University and went to work after he found out my mother was pregnant. She was afraid of raising me in poverty and her parents were pushing her to abort or put me up for adoption. My father’s withdrawal from studies meant that there was no longer a valid reason for him to stay in the country. My mother’s application for social assistance in order to more securely support us meant that she couldn’t sponsor my father to stay in the country. He was deported back to Nigeria about a year after I was born. He stayed in touch by writing for about five years until my parents were officially divorced and my name was changed.

My mother raised me thinking that my father didn’t want me. This was partly out of her own need to isolate me, her own insecurities around being abandoned, needing me to be all hers. It is not a coincidence that she died less than a year after I went to visit my father. When I eventually found my father in my twenties, my mother admitted that she had lied to me all those years.

My father was the hope for his family, as star student, he was sent out into the Western World, he returned with nothing to show for it, nothing but me. The weight of this failure only really hit me when I went to Nigeria to meet him in my thirties, and one of my cousins shared, in a gathering of up to about 100 of my relations, that no one really believed I existed until they discovered my blog. They thought he had just made me up to say he had accomplished something while he was in Canada. My father has lived something of a desperate life as his deportation from Canada broke him. He never remarried or had any other children. Despite his education and mastery of several languages, he works in a position often held by Nigerians who don’t speak English. But he still manages to keep up his curiosity to learn, to explore, to collect knowledge wherever he can find it.

A Life So Far

Both my parents never lived up to their potential and that continues to be an anxiety of mine, particularly now that I have reached this age and don’t have much tangible accomplishments to show having spent so much time on earth.

Both my parents were very intelligent and curious people. It is the inheritance of their curiosity that I value over their intelligence. It made them both open to the world in many ways, explorers. My father was limited by having the wrong citizenship. My mother was limited by her family and her fear. If they had not been so limited, I wonder what they could have achieved?

There are many good reasons why I have not achieved what many others have by my age: a career, marriage, children. I still don’t even know how to drive. But, I need to not confuse reasons with excuses. I need to focus on what I can achieve and not accept a life without accomplishments.  I won’t be able to live up to the standards of my peers because I’m not working with the same assets. Like my parents, I am limited. But to live without some ambition is to just sleepwalk through life, which is what I feel I have been doing for a good decade or so.

They say it takes a village to raise a child but that’s not true, it takes a village to raise a couple, to raise a parent, to raise a family. We leave people alone too much in these small units, thinking that it is enough. But it’s not. We each need more people to keep us going than just the ones closest to us.

That’s the biggest lesson I have learned so far. Great love can fail just for the lack of one good mentor, one good advisor, one good confidante.

I wasn’t enough to keep my mother going and that wasn’t my fault. I know this and I will probably struggle for the rest of my life trying to believe it.

Even though I struggle with mental health issues that doesn’t mean I can’t be there for other people. But it does mean that I have to be careful to find meaning in other things than being a “helper” particularly as the “helping” role is not the healthiest pattern for me given my upbringing. I also need to learn how to let myself be helped. The relationships I look to build from now on I hope to make more reciprocal, being both helped and helping the people in my life, being depended on by others as well as depending on others.

My parents fought to keep me and I must commit the rest of my life to fight to keep myself. I have managed to commit to life for another year, and for now that is my greatest accomplishment.

Photo Credit: Mohamed Shaheen

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I attended the film screening of The Lost Years: A People’s Struggle for Justice by Edmonton-based filmmaker Kenda Gee and Tom Radford at the Library and Archives. The screening was hosted by the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and CBC Ottawa and was incredibly well attended.

LOST YEARS is an epic documentary touching upon 150 years of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia, covering four generations of racism as revealed through the journey and family story of Kenda Gee. Kenda, a Chinese Canadian, travels with his father to China to retrace the steps of his great-grandfather, exactly a century ago, and grandfather, who sailed to Canada in the summer of 1921. For thousands of Chinese immigrants that year, it was a journey of hope that turned into a nightmare when they were confronted with racism and the head tax, depriving them of their rights as citizens.

I was particularly interested in watching the film because the impact of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act was really brought home to me when one of my mentor’s, Yew Lee, began campaigning for redress for people who paid Head Tax, their spouses, and descendents. Yew Lee’s father came to Canada and had to pay a head tax. The Exclusion Act prevented his family from being united for some 30 years, resulting in a great deal of family difficulties. His family’s story is featured in the 2004 documentary In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho. When I first learned about his story, I was quite disturbed that this racist legislation was not well-known by most Canadians. We are raised to believe that Canada has always been an inclusive and multicultural society but this is not true and it is important to understand our history if we wish to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes. Also, as a Black Canadian, I feel that it is important for us to learn about the struggles of other racialized communities in order to put our own struggles against racism in perspective and find ways to find allies and work in solidarity on issues of discrimination.

Audience at the Ottawa Screening of The Lost Years

This film is a good introduction to the historical legacy and personal impact of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act on generations of Chinese Canadians. As Devon Wong wrote in his review of the film for BC-based Schema Magazine:

In many ways, Lost Years delved directly into the part of my own family heritage that I’d given up trying to access. I’d never been able to have the conversations around my own family’s migration, despite having my great-grandfather arrive in Canada over a hundred years ago. I’d lost the language on the way, and the ability to communicate and understand their struggles.

I invited my friend and co-worker who is a Chinese International Student to the screening and she was surprised to learn about this history as it is also not well-known in China itself. I was glad to learn from filmmaker Kenda Gee, who spoke at the screening, that the film has been shown in China itself, most notably winning the Best Documentary Award and Prize for History & Culture at the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival.

Kenda Gee, whose great-grandfather came to Canada in 1910 and who was Chair of Edmonton’s Chinese Head Tax & Exclusion Act (Redress) Committee since 1998, was initially reluctant to explore his own family’s history in the documentary, as he explained in a 2011 interview with the Edmonton Journal:

I was very averse to using the story because there are so many stories in the community that should be told… But Tom (Radford) was very insistent. … My condition was that I said ‘as long as whoever’s watching the documentary, especially Chinese Canadians, can see the same story through the eyes of the storyteller.’ So it’s not so much my family’s story, but that they can identify, ‘This has happened to us as well’

I am glad that Gee used his own family’s story to situate the history he is trying to explore. This also allows for some very poignant moments in the film, such as Gee returning with his 78 year old father to his family’s ancestral village in Taishan County, Guangdong Province, China, which was once a farming community but has now made way for factories in the process of China’s industrialization. This was quite meaningful for me as many of my Chinese Canadian friends’ families also originate from Taishan and often were raised speaking the Taishan dialect which they learned from their grandparents.

We were able to view both episodes of the mini-series at this event. These episodes were shown on CBC’s Absolutely Canadian in February and my hope is that they will be screened again soon.

Episode 1: The Loh Wah Kiu Beginning with the fall of the last Chinese (Qing) dynasty in 1911, to the end of the Second World War, this episode recalls decades of anti-Chinese racism in North America, from Vancouver Island, Angel Island and beyond. Kenda’s journey takes him across Canada and the USA, tracing the experiences of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Their personal stories document the enormous obstacles they faced before they would become citizens in their own countries of birth

“Loh Wah Kiu” means “Old Overseas Chinese”, the earliest generations to emigrate from China. This episode features interviews with some fascinating Chinese Canadians and Americans.

Gim Wong: I actually had a chance to meet Royal Canadian Air Force Veteran Gim Wong years ago in relation to the Redress Campaign and I had previously viewed the 2004 documentary In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho, in which he is interviewed. Gim Wong is quite fiery in the film and I would never want to get on this man’s bad side. But this man has had a life of struggle. Back in 2005 at the age of 82, Gim Wong rode his motorcycle across Canada in order to raise media and public awareness about the Campaign to demand Redress for the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. In 1922, Wong was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown. His father came to Canada in 1906. His mother was able to come to the country in 1921 during the brief window between the end of the First World War and the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 when the Exclusion Act prevented the immigration of Chinese to Canada. Wong grew up in poverty like many Chinese Canadians at the time and had to face harsh racism (He describes a racist experience in this CBC Video Interview ). Wong joined the military in 1943 at the age of 22, eventually becoming an air-gunner with the Royal Air Force. However, in 1944, when Chinese Canadian men were drafted by the government, Wong was angered-it seemed unjust to demand military service from a community that didn’t even have the right to vote! (In B.C. legislation was passed in 1871 barring Chinese Canadians from the right to vote, this was only remedied in 1947 after the Exclusion Act was repealed). Wong first voted in 1953.To learn more about the experience of British Columbia’s Chinese Canadians in World War II, I recommend the documentary Unwanted Soldiers by Jari Osborne which is available online.  In 1959, Wong married in Hong Kong but his wife was denied entry into Canada because she was labeled a “Communist” for having attend a Communist run school-during the height of the Cold War this was a very serious accusation. Eventually, with the support of his local MP, Wong was able to get his wife to Canada.

Larry Kwong: Born in Vernon, British Columbia, Larry Kwong is the first Chinese Canadian to ever play in the National Hockey League. He would eventually go on to play for the New York Rangers. He now lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Bettie Luke: Chinese American Bettie Luke is the Chair of the 2011 Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project. During her interview in the film, we learn about the horrifying Chinese Expulsion Riots of 1886 in Seattle during which racist rioters, driven by anti-Chinese hysteria, drove approximately 350 Chinese migrants from their homes on to a steamship meant to send them back to China. Luke organized a march from the Seattle docks through Chinatown in order to commemorate the 125th Anniversary of the riots. Due to her efforts to raise awareness of this dark chapter in Seattle’s history, February 7th is now officially Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Day in all of King County, Washington. Luke has a personal connection to the riots. Her father’s uncle was the Seattle Mayor’s houseboy at the time and therefore was not expelled because he was protected. Luke is the sister of Wing Luke, the first Asian American to hold elected office in the Pacific Northwest. Wing was instrumental in Seattle’s passing of an Open Housing Ordinance in 1963 with punitive provisions against racial discrimination in the selling or renting of real estate. He died tragically in 1965. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, located in Seattle’s Chinatown, was named after him.

Episode 2 Jook Sing: In what may be his last opportunity to retrace his ancestral past with his father Took, Kenda Gee returns to his family’s ancestral village in Taishan, China. Along the way, Kenda discovers through the stories of the Chinese diaspora abroad that racism has no borders, his journey eventually taking him to Australia’s Parliament in the capital of Canberra, where white supremacy policies and anti-Chinese legislation in the British Commonwealth find their genesis. The episode ends with a Canadian nation still trying to confront its racist past, following the federal government’s official acknowledgement in Ottawa in 2006.

Jook Sing” is a Cantonese term used to describe Overseas Chinese who are perceived to have lost their distinctive Chinese cultural identity and been Westernized.  This is a fitting title for the second episode when Gee returns to China with his father. The reality is that although this is their ancestral home, their cultural connections to the country are minimal. This is the cruel irony of racism because it denies a sense of belonging to racialized communities in the countries where we call home, but we are often no longer really connected to our countries and cultures of origin-so where do we belong? This episode also includes some very interesting interviews:

Esther Fung: I appreciated that Gee makes stops in other countries where early Chinese immigrants tried to make their home and often faced similar racism and exclusion. In New Zealand, the “head tax” was called the “poll tax”. Retired high school teacher Esther Fung is a Chinese New Zealander who lead a redress campaign in that country  which eventually led to a formal apology from the New Zealand Government in 2002.

May Chiu: Lawyer and Community Activist May Chiu ran in the 2006 Canadian Federal Election against then Prime Minister Paul Martin. Her campaign focused on raising awareness about the demand for redress from Martin’s ruling Liberal Party who had refused to issue a parliamentary apology for the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act or to offer compensation to living Head Tax payers and their descendents. Chiu is the former Executive Director of Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal.

Normie Kwong: The first Chinese Canadian to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, Normie Kwong was a professional football player who won four Grey Cups. He was the first Chinese Canadian to play on a professional Canadian football team. Recipient of the Order of Canada, Normie Kwong is featured in this Historica Canada Heritage Minute)

I highly recommend watching The Lost Years along with another great documentary about the early Chinese Canadian experience In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho which is available online here at the National Film Board of Canada website.

Further Reading:

The Lost Years A People’s Struggle for Justice Site

Lost Years’ YouTube Page

Review by Devon Wong in Schema Magazine

CBC Radio Edmonton Interview (August 19, 2011) with Kenda Gee and Tom Radford available online

Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act

The Chinese Head Tax Redress Campaign Site

The Early Chinese Canadians 1858–1947: Head Tax Records: (Library and Archives Canada)

Address (22 June 2006) by the Prime Minister at a reception for members of the Chinese Community

Chinese Head Tax Redress (Government of Canada)

Head Tax Families Society of Canada Site

In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho, film available online

About my “Loh Wah Kui” Family essay available online by Sid Tan

Transcript of a CTV Interview (2000) with Yew Lee available online

Chinese Canadian History

Chinese Canadian Genealogy Site (Vancouver Public Library)

Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society Website

Unwanted Soldiers by Jari Osborne, film available online

Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon Histories from a Common Past Web Portal

Chinese Canadian Women, 1923-1967: Inspiration – Innovation – Ingenuity Website

Chinese Canadian Community Organizations

Chinese Canadian National Council

Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre

Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre Website

Chinese in New Zealand

Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust (Government of New Zealand)

The Chinese in New Zealand Site by Steven Young

New Zealand Apology to Chinese Migrants (February 13 2002) CNN Article available online

I had a great time being a “book” in the Human Library this Saturday. This was the first time a Human Library has been organized in Ottawa on this scale. It came about as a unique partnership between CBC Ottawa, the Ottawa Public Library, and the Canadian War Museum.

So, What is a Human Library? According to the Human Library Website:

The Human Library is an innovative method designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.The main characteristics of the project are to be found in its simplicity and positive approach.

In its initial form the Human Library is a mobile library set up as a space for dialogue and interaction. Visitors to a Human Library are given the opportunity to speak informally with“people on loan”; this latter group being extremely varied in age, sex and cultural background.

The Human Library enables groups to break stereotypes by challenging the most common prejudices in a positive and humorous manner. It is a concrete, easily transferable and affordable way of promoting tolerance and understanding.

It is a “keep it simple”,“no-nonsense” contribution to social cohesion in multicultural societies.

The idea for the Human Library was developped as a way of resisting hatred and violence in society. According to the Human Library Website:

Once upon a time in Copenhagen, Denmark. There was a young and idealistic youth organisation called “Stop The Violence”. This non-governmental youth movement was self initiated by the five youngsters Dany Abergel, Asma Mouna, Christoffer Erichsen, Thomas Bertelsen and Ronni Abergel from Copenhagen after a mutual friend was stabbed in the nightlife (1993). The brutal attack on their friend, who luckily survived, made the five youngsters decide to try and do something about the problem. To raise awareness and use peer group education to mobilise danish youngsters against violence. In a few years the organisation had 30.000 members all over the country.

In 2000 Stop The Violence was encouraged by then festival director, Mr. Leif Skov, to organise activities for Roskilde Festival. Events that would put focus on anti-violence, encourage dialogue and build relations among the festival visitors. And the Human Library was born, as a challenge to the crowds of Northern Europe’s biggest summer festival.

The Human Library in Ottawa was set up simply. According to CBC Ottawa’s Human Library Website:

The concept is simple. Instead of taking a book off a shelf to learn something new, you spend some time with a person-a human book. Ask that person some questions and learn more about his or her life.

On Saturday January 28th 2012, from 11 a.m. to 3p.m., you can take a book off the shelf right here in Ottawa. Sixty people will be available for short term loans (20 minutes each) at six  locations around the city. You’ll find them at five branches of the Ottawa Public Library-Cumberland, Greenboro, Nepean, Stittsville, and Main Branch-as well as at the Canadian War Museum.

Here is what my book description was:

Chelby Daigle was raised by her single mom and grew up in a white family, but the colour of Chelby’s skin was a daily reminder of her black father, who was deported back to Nigeria when she was just a baby. When Chelby was eight, she discovered and clung to a photograph of her dad that she found tucked inside an old typewriter. As a young adult, Chelby had a chance encounter at the Embassy of Nigeria in Ottawa that helped launch her search for her absent father.

I was glad to have the opportunity to meet several of my fellow books during our orientation, an interview on CBC TV and on the day of the event itself. Each person’s story was interesting but I found the following people particularly fascinating.

Ted Itani is a retired soldier and a Humanitarian Advisor for the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. During his diverse UN missions in such places as Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, he has seen the human cost of conflict, but still believes that we change the world “one person at a time.”

I had an opportunity to meet Ted Itani during our interview about the event for CBC. He is the husband of the well-known Canadian author Frances Itani. Ted Itani is Japanese-Canadian. During World War II he was interned with his family, along with the over 22, 000 Japanese-Canadians who were seen as threats to national security. Itani didn’t discuss any of this with me when I met him. Instead, we discussed his military career-he joined the Canadian Military back in 1957- and his current work with the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Although retired, Itani is still busy acting as an advisor to Canadian and American agencies working in conflict zones and areas that are experiencing humanitarian crisis. In 2010, Itani was sent to Pakistan to coordinate the Red Cross Field Assessment and Coordination Team as it oversaw flood relief efforts. Itani was no stranger to Pakistan as he had first been sent there in 1988 to work with the UN as it supported an influx of Afghan refugees.

William Lau’s parents always hoped he would study engineering. He decided to pursue a master’s degree in dance instead. William specializes in an ancient Chinese art form called Peking Opera. He plays the lead female characters known as the “Dan.” In fact, he’s the only person in Canada trained in all four Dan styles.

Another fascinating “book” was Chinese-Canadian William Lau. Lau is a Chinese Opera singer. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Montreal, Lau studied for his Masters in Fine Arts at York University. He is trained in both Chinese Tradition Dance and Western Ballet. He studied Peking Opera in Beijing, specializing performing the lead female roles or “the Dan”, which are traditionally played by men. In 1994, he founded the Little Pear Garden Collective which aims to keep traditional Chinese arts alive in Canada. Lau has pushed the boundaries of traditional Peking/Beijing Opera by collaborating with artists from other cultural backgrounds. I hope to see one of Lau’s productions when he performs again in Ottawa. His last Ottawa performance was Peking Opera Soiree at the NAC in 2011.  Lau was the “book” who could speak the most languages: Cantonese, English, French and Mandarin.

Lindsay does indoor sex work. She specializes in clients with disabilities. She’s also a member of the local sex worker advocacy group P.O.W.E.R.

Lindsay was probably considered the most controversial book at the Human Library but I found her to be laid back and easy to talk to. Lindsay is currently working on her second undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies (her first was in Classical History and Archeology). Lindsay moved to Ottawa to be with her current partner back in 2006. Lindsay works as an escort and is a vocal advocate for the rights of sex workers and likes to challenge stereotypes about the world’s oldest profession. She doesn’t see what she’s doing as a contradiction to her feminism. Lindsay is a member of P.O.W.E.R. Here’s a description of the organization from their website:

POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist) is a non-profit, voluntary organization founded on February 17th, 2008. Membership is open to individuals of all genders who self-identify as former or current sex workers, regardless of the industry sector in which they work(ed) (i.e. dancers, street level workers, in and out call workers, phone sex, etc.) and to allies who share our vision. We envision a society in which sex workers are able to practice their professions free of legal and social discrimination, victimization, harassment and violence and in which sex work is valued as legitimate and fulfilling work making an important contribution to society.

Definitely one of the highlights of the day was missing a chance to speak to George Stromboulopoulous. He was standing right beside me! But I didn’t realize because I had taken my glasses off for an interview. He was in town for the All Star Game and decided to check out the Human Library. If you want proof here’s a picture he took. That’s me in the grey hijab!

Further Reading:

The Human Library

Check out a CBC Ottawa Interview with me and a few other great “books”

CBC’s Website the Human Library in Ottawa

Coverage of Ottawa’s Human Library in the National Post

Photo Gallery from Ottawa’s Human Library

The Human Library Website

Ted Itani

Video Interview (2010) available online

William Lau

Interview (2011) available online

Lindsay

Interview available online

Interview (2012) available online

On May 7th 2011, I had a lot going on. At 1pm I had to be at the Old Ottawa South Fire Hall on 260 Sunnyside, in order to receive the Leading Women Building Communities Award from Yasir Naqvi, MPP, on behalf of the Government of Ontario. I was nominated by Albanian Canadian  Shano Bejkosalaj and Palvashah Durrani. According to the later I received informing me of my award: “The Award was designed of honour women and girls who have made a real difference in their communities-females who have gone above and beyond to make the world a better place for everyone.”

The Award was originally launched on International Women’s Day on March 8th, 2006 by Sandra Pupatello, Provincial Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues.

Moji and Shola Agoro, daughters of Abiola Agoro who helped me find my father were also honoured with this award earlier this year.

I was able to take two youth who I’ve been mentoring to the award reception.

I didn’t really know what to wear. I never have any fancy clothes. I borrowed a traditional Sudanese form of attire for women, called a thobe. It is similar to a sari in that it is a large piece of cloth wrapped around the body. I don’t think I wore it well.

MPP Yasir Naqvi, Sabrina Teklab, Chelby Daigle, Khalid Egeh, Palvashah Durrani and Shano Bejkosalaj

I was one of about 20 recipients. Other women who received the award along with me included: Manjit Basi, Dr. Alia Dakroury, Faye Brunning, Marlene Floyd, Josephine Palumbo, and Jo-Ann Poirier