By Robert Porter
Born in Toronto to first generation immigrant parents (Jamaican and Irish respectively), David Keeshan only ever considered himself 100% Canadian. He maintains strong cultural connections to his Jamaican and Irish heritage to this day, but his sense of Canadian identity is rooted in his full commitment to Canadian values, and the belief that a strong sense of cultural diversity makes for stronger communities, and countries. It’s a belief that he has instilled in his own children.
His mother’s family lived in Jamaica for a century before his father emigrated there from Ireland in order to teach at Jamaica College in the 1940’s. After marrying and living in Jamaica for several years, they saw greater opportunities in Canada for themselves than a Jamaica independent of Britain. Nearly the entire extended family – eight of nine of his mother’s generation, as well as his grandparents – decided to move to Canada in 1953. “With only $20 in my pocket,” David’s father later told him, he made his second international move in a decade.
Their move to Canada was like those of many other immigrant families: they arrived with few resources, and no real safety net. Between seven and nine family members shared a humble 2-bedroom house in Toronto, with the basement and living room converted to bedrooms in order to house everyone. Family members would move in and out depending on their needs, such as marriage, or varying economic factors. Nevertheless, the “original” family home in Toronto remained the social hub – partly due to the presence there of the family matriarch and patriarch, David’s grandparents. Partly due to the nature of their mass-move to Canada, this Jamaican-Irish family was necessarily close-knit through all of the challenges of relocation.
Much of the social experience growing up in 1960’s Toronto, David pointed out, was very Jamaican. “I cannot recall anyone visiting the house who wasn’t Jamaican,” David recalls. Indeed, the experience of being raised in Canada by a large extended family who moved at once was an enclave-like experience. Whereas the younger generation saw themselves as distinctly “Canadian,” the elder generation never fully-emerged from their previous cultural patterns and expectations to fully adopt Canadian culture: Although they put down deep and permanent roots in Canada, and were proud Canadians (and hockey fans), “it was much more difficult for them,” David noted “they never really broke out of it.”
Indeed, David’s generation would be the first to expand its social circle beyond the Jamaican-immigrant community, and also to reconnect with the Irish side of the family in later years when communication and travel became easier and more affordable. Nevertheless, while fiercely proud of his cultural heritage, he never felt undue societal pressure to conform to societal norms in Canada, or faced any major discrimination. Perhaps due to the fact that while his family was from Jamaica, they did not look like members of a visible minority, although “tuna sandwiches were easier to bring to school than Jamaican patties.”
He acknowledges that his generation had an easier time adapting to a broader pan-Canadian culture than the preceding one. Even though his mother had a less comfortable relationship with Canadian identity, she firmly believed that the wave of immigration she and her family were part of, transformed the country for the better. He recalled a conversation that he had with his mother in the 1970’s when she was reflecting on her immigration experience. “She remarked that the surge of immigration after the war in the 1950’s had really turned Canada from a backward-looking country to a forward-looking one.”