This month’s blogpost for #thisisimaginationatwork comes from one of our founding Board Members, Brian Phillips. One of the many things I really cherish about the Department of Imaginary Affairs is the work we have done to encourage people to share their stories and how each story is unique, and at the same time alike to others. I am grateful for the Board Members who have shared their stories with us behind the scenes and within this blog series. Like many stories we have collected over the years, Brian’s is a story of identity, belonging, exclusion, values, and resilience. I hope you find some part of Brian’s story that resonates with you or something that makes you think differently than you did before or perhaps gives you yearning for your own home. One of my favourite pieces of The Stories of Us curriculum is the work we do to collect and hear people’s stories that start with the phrase “I am from…” and to get to see the many ways people finish this sentence – with vivid memories of sights, smells, sounds. Each poem paints a vivid picture. I get that same feeling from reading Brian’s piece. Thank you Brian for taking the time to write this piece and share your story.
My name is Brian and while English is my first language, I am an immigrant that came to Canada as a young boy. I want to tell you the story of how I got here, why I love this country and how my life has unfolded.
I was born in Georgetown, British Guyana and lived there for the first four years of my life. The British West Indies were first colonized in 1627, and eventually encompassed the Caribbean Islands and mainland countries that shared coastlines with the Caribbean Sea. Before the British, the Spanish, Dutch and French established colonies there to extract raw materials like gold, salt and eventually sugar in the 18th century. Sugar became Britain’s largest export at this time. The slave trade was used effectively by the British and by the mid 20th century the descendants of the over 2 million slaves originally brought to the British West Indies eventually became the majority in the region. As a result of all the mixing of races over decades of colonization, I was not surprised to learn that I had African, Indian, Portuguese, German and French heritage. The political scene in the region exploded in the early 1960’s as many Caribbean countries fought for their independence from England. One of the few memories I have of living in Guyana was being awakened by these strange sounds while in bed. My uncle Dereck came running into the room where I slept, scooped me off the bed and shoved me onto the floor under the bed to shield me from the bullets being sprayed from the street below.
My parents left Guyana in 1962 for England, where my dad was offered a job with the British civil service and my mother became a library assistant.. My sister Donna and I stayed behind with my grandparents, aunties and uncles until my parents were finally settled with solid work and a place for us to live. In 1963 my grandmother flew with us from Guyana to start our lives in a new country.
I have only happy memories of London, where I started school and received communion, like a good Catholic boy. My parents were getting comfortable in work and life when my father, Claude, received a job offer in Canada. On December 23, 1966, after three years in London, and me at eight years of age, we moved again, this time to Montreal. I will never forget flying into Dorval Airport and being amazed at all the lights, it looked like a magical land and Canada has truly taken care of us.
From grade two, I remember the names of the boys I had crushes on and while I really liked girls, the boys were the ones that made my heart flutter. In grade five, I was called the N word for the first time in my life and while I didn’t fight, I realized in that moment that this was another thing that made me different from everyone else. I had a great time in school however, focusing on good grades but also having fun and getting into trouble with friends. In grade 7, I became obsessed with music, my first records being Super Fly by Curtis Mayfield and Machinehead by Deep Purple. My first concert was Led Zeppelin and I subsequently fell in love with David Bowie and Freddie Mercury – both giving me an understanding and appreciation of style, edginess and ultimate cool.
My mother Yvonne cut our family’s hair for as long as I can remember. By the time I was a teenager, I started cutting my own hair, inspired by rock n roll/punk/new wave – I had some crazy hairstyles. In university, I started experimenting with cutting friends’ hair to make some quick cash and was amazed that they actually came back for more. I finished my degree in Communications from Concordia U and moved to Toronto in 1984 to find a job in the media. What found me was an apprenticeship position with Toronto’s Rainbow Room Salon which was an incredible creative/social/business enterprise that kicked off my career culminating in worldSALON, my salon of thirty years and WORLD Hair and Skin, my product line that is growing by leaps and bounds.
I feel blessed being Canadian and especially these days with COVID 19 rampaging all over the planet. Our inclusive, socially progressive mindset in this country has helped our citizens excel. I decided pretty early on that I would have my own business, because being in control of my sphere and the people in it was of greatest import. I have had some awful clients and staff members over the years and to eject them has been empowering. I have also chosen to learn from painful experiences and not let them define me. One of the worst was being beat up by five black guys in a nightclub because I was kissing another man. That took a year for me to get over. Ignorance and hatred come in all shapes, sizes and colours. I always say, there is only one of you! We are all ambassadors to the world on behalf of ourselves. Working hard, being open, keeping learning and focusing on the positive will ensure success.
I am a distillation of many things. I am a lover, a dog dad, a friend, an outdoor lover, a brother, black, brown, gay, Canadian, a product designer, a hairstylist, a runner, a gardener, a Heinz 57, an uncle, a gym bunny, a neighbour, a writer, a poet, West Indian, British and more. Growing up, going through school and starting my career in Canada has allowed me to develop in a climate that endorses mutual respect, openness, inclusion and support for all ethnicities and genders. We must continue to live with open minds and turn away from divisiveness and hatred. Embrace all that you are, treat others how you would like to be treated and try to be your best ambassador each day. Wherever you go in our great country, leave it better than you found it.