A New Yorker in Toronto: Reflections on the Rise of Indo-Caribbean Communities in Toronto
Written by Cristine Khan
Sunday October 1, 2023
On a recent trip to Scarborough, where I was conducting an interview for my research on the Indo-Caribbean community in Toronto, the already late GO bus driver decided to pull over on the road to use the bathroom at a Swiss Chalet. Annoyed because of the delay, I let out a loud sigh and sucked my teeth. Slightly embarrassed by my noise, I turned around to a sea of brown faces on the bus—everyone was cackling. They seemed to find the situation amusing, accepting that the bus driver needed to use the restroom.
The New Yorker in me was baffled—if I was home, people would have loudly complained, maybe even attempting to move the bus themselves. Though I appreciated the kindness and solidarity in that moment, it also hints at a distinction between New York and Toronto that I’ve been grappling with.
Toronto is a city where immigrant communities thrive while also accepting certain dominant cultural norms, rooted in notions of Canadian multiculturalism. In New York, immigrant communities have a long history of changing and shifting the city by challenging dominant culture. Though there are histories of immigrant resilience and activism in Toronto, it seems like this volition to shift dominant culture is becoming pronounced amongst children of immigrants (the second-generation) and the Indo-Caribbean community is one example of this.
I have spent the past summer in Toronto interviewing second-generation Indo-Caribbean community members. I’ve asked people about their experiences growing up in Toronto and their understanding of Indo-Caribbean identity. I’ve also heard deeply personal stories of experiencing racism, of facing cultural pressures like marriage and dating within the culture, and of challenging cultural norms through embracing queerness. I am grateful to everyone who has allowed me into their homes and lives with such openness and vulnerability.
In unearthing all of these histories of Indo-Caribbean identity in the city and tracking the emergence of these new community spaces, I keep on asking why is there a surge in Indo-Caribbean spaces in Toronto?
Devi Mandir in Pickering, a long-established Indo-Caribbean temple.
I have looked to three areas to contextualize this newfound “identity revolution,” as one of my interviewees called it:
1 The dispersed Indo-Caribbean communities in Toronto
The lack of a central neighborhood has a notable impact on Indo-Caribbean communities in Toronto. In New York (and even in Toronto), every Caribbean person is familiar with Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens which houses a strip of stores, restaurants, and religious institutions that create a sense of Indo-Caribbean community. One can easily take the train or bus to walk this area, which is also a short ride from the airport.
In Toronto, however, as a car-less New Yorker, I’ve spent hours taking public transportation to the East End in Ajax, Pickering, Scarborough, and to the West End in Etobicoke, Mississauga and Brampton. I’ve also visited longer-established active and resilient communities in Jane and Finch, which often go unrecognized in the landscape of Indo-Caribbean communities
Toronto visibly has a long-established history of pockets of Indo-Caribbean communities spread out in the GTA. There are historical markers of Indo-Caribbean culture all throughout the city from Geetika Dance Company in Pickering to Lotus Toronto in Jane and Finch to food establishments like Mona’s Roti in Scarborough. Of course, large festivals that shape Toronto identity like Caribana and Chutney Fest. There are also new and emerging spaces that aim to foster Indo-Caribbean identity like Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association, Brown Gyal Diary, and Savouring the Caribbean.
Indo-Caribbean communities in both New York and Toronto maintain very specific cultural aspects through food, music, religion, and cultural events. Though Toronto does not have a Little Guyana or Little Caribbean, religious spaces, dance communities, and fete cultures seem to unite different facets of the community oftentimes serving as cultural spaces.
A Guyanese market in Scarborough.
2 The rise of Social Media identity spaces
It’s now commonplace that people learn about Indo-Caribbean culture and identity through social media pages. Almost every week, I spot a new page addressing something related to ancestry and Indo-Caribbean history. More established pages such as The Cutlass Magazine and Brown Gyal Diary have been pivotal in addressing conversations relevant to the construction of Indo-Caribbean culture and identity. These conversations entered their peak in 2020 as we faced a global -pandemic and global uprisings around anti-Blackness and white supremacy. Pandemic activism, as I like to call it, emerged largely through social media —being on our screens for days straight during lockdowns pushed people to seek virtual communities. Conversations around discrimination, identity, and systemic racism further positioned these conversations throughout 2020. Social media has also been the main outlet for me to connect with Indo-Caribbean people in Toronto and across the Diaspora in places like London and the Netherlands. These transnational virtual spaces have provided us with a new outlet to think through our ancestral legacies, histories, and how they manifest in the ways we express our identities in the Global North.
Saldenah carnival band during Caribana 2023.
3 The impact of social movements around Black Lives on immigrant communities
As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, we must acknowledge that immigrant communities both in the US and Canada have benefitted from the activism of Black people. We must pay homage to the people that have paved the way to engage in these conversations around identity and belonging. Many of these organizations and conversations around Indo-Caribbean identity in Canada and in the US have gained traction specifically during the pandemic and after the uprisings that occurred spurred by the very public murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor in the US.
These transnational conversations around identity, belonging, and unbelonging have become the foreground for a lot of our own explorations of Indo-Caribbean culture.
While many have noted the erasure of Indo-Caribbeans within dominant narratives of the Caribbean, we must also avoid such binary logics that reproduce ideas of Indian vs. Black. We must be careful in how we construct Indo-Caribbean spaces separate from larger Caribbean spaces. We must always work to dismantle anti-Blackness especially as we navigate conversations around erasure and notions of anti-Indianness.
As I move forward with my own journey as a researcher of the Indo-Caribbean community, I am constantly reminded of how I cannot separate myself from my cultural identity and upbringing as a second-generation Indo-Guyanese New Yorker. I am excited to further engage in these conversations with Indo-Caribbean community people across the diaspora.
About the Author
Cristine Khan is a second-generation Guyanese New Yorker. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center where her dissertation research interrogates the construction of Indo-Caribbean identities and communities in New York City and Toronto. Aside from her work, Cristine loves to travel, and has lived in 5 different countries–she feels most at home in New York City and Bogota, Colombia.