INNISFAIL — About six weeks ago Robert McNaught was at an upscale Saskatoon hotel when he saw a disheveled Aboriginal man and woman laying in the foyer.
There was blood on the woman’s face. They were cold, hungry and tired. McNaught said hello. He then asked them if they were OK. A few minutes later a hotel front desk employee apologized to him about the couple. He said they would soon be banished.
“They are OK,” he told the employee. “They are not going to do anything. I will speak to them.”
When McNaught returned to the couple the woman panicked. They feared forced removal.
“Just relax. Promise you won’t leave a mess, and you won’t break anything,” he said.
The couple promised. They stayed until they got warm.
This was an emotional story for McNaught to pass on. It was just one heartbreaking moment of many McNaught wanted to share on racism he has encountered in his lifetime.
“That could be me there,” said McNaught. “It could be any of us.”
Many times it has been McNaught at the receiving end of racism. He is a 65-year-old African-Canadian who has been a citizen of Innisfail for the past 14 years.
During his lifetime he has heard the ugly taunts, the curses, and the vicious N-word hurled at him from across rooms or passing cars.
He was often forced to feel alone, to be an outsider. Born in Montreal to a black mother and white father, there was a grade school incident during a lesson on race when that aloneness was underscored without the slightest hint of sensitivity and compassion.
“She said everybody in the class was Caucasian except for me, and she pointed at me,” he said. “As an eight-year-old child you don’t want to be different. You don’t want to be the one person who isn’t part of the group. So for years I always thought, ‘geez, how can I change this? How come I had to be born this way? Why couldn’t I have been born with blonde hair and blue eyes?'”
Finding answers to those questions was never easy for McNaught when growing up in the big cities. He was just a child who was bombarded every which way with centuries-old social norms that marginalized black people.
“I thought about it but in a negative way because I didn’t want to be that. Why would I want to be that? Nobody else is that way,” he said. “Everybody who had any position in life was not black. Everybody on television was white. Everybody with nice cars was white. I didn’t want to be black. I thought, ‘what have I done to deserve this?”
However, McNaught did find the strength to accept himself. By the age of 15 he proudly had an Afro hairstyle and listened to Sly and the Family Stone.
“I realized Afros are pretty cool too, and that’s when I started feeling better about it,” he said, adding this acceptance process continued until his early 20s. “It wasn’t something all of a sudden. It was something that overtime you see. I like who I am, and in some ways the notoriety of being black is actually fun. You can play it up and have fun with it.
“I accepted it and embraced it.”
Today McNaught is a proud hard-working black man in the general construction contracting business who has found his niche in Innisfail, a small conservative rural Alberta town where for generations the sight of an African-Canadian has historically been met with at least a good dose of curiosity.
However, he readily concedes the experience has been “99 per cent good”, with only a few uncomfortable moments.
“I find the people in Innisfail nice, and a lot of them sometimes curious. They will ask curious questions,” he said chucking. “I was in a play one time in town with ITT and they needed someone to play the part of a black person, and so I was asked to be in the play. It was good.
“I’ve had situations where it was uncomfortable, and there are times when yes, you have got to watch where you are because there are people who would like to beat you up,” he said of past experiences. “And especially I find there are people who would like to beat me up when I am dating a white woman because they think, what am I doing with her, (that) I should be sticking with my own kind.”
But the good has always handily won. He loves Innisfail. He wants the community to prosper, and like any other community, there is always room to grow, outwardly and inwardly.
Last June, McNaught attended the town’s highly publicized anti-racism rally. He knew some would not like it but he also felt there was an important reason for it, perhaps to bring needed awareness on racism.
“There are people who don’t think it really matters if you are not treated any differently,” he said, noting at the time he had just spent 10 months in Saskatoon where there is a large Aboriginal population. “I saw how some of them were treated. It is a very difficult situation to see that. It also brought back feelings of how my ancestors were treated. We were enslaved, and I felt yes, it is an important thing.
McNaught is a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and dismisses the often-heard notion the Black Lives Matter movement is being overly pushed to matter more than the lives of non-blacks.
“No it is not true. It is sort of like saying you want to save the elephant. It doesn’t mean that I want to kill every other animal in the world and just save elephants,” said McNaught, who has also since joined the award-winning Welcoming & Inclusive Community Committee that is addressing racism in the community. “It just means save the elephants and the other animals, along with Black Lives Matter and the lives of others. If we can lift one group of people up it will help lift everyone up.”
“Most people don’t want to be treated better,” he added. “They just want to be treated the same.”
As for his own future, McNaught is confidently moving forward. Since the anti-racism rally more than three months ago, he feels reenergized by the movement all around him that aims to some day see a world where everyone is treated equally.
When asked if he’s now searching for another answer, he paused, and then remembered a conversation with his girlfriend a few weeks ago while watching a disturbing racially-charged newscast.
“I said, ‘why do people hate us? What have we really done to make them hate us?” recalled McNaught. “I just want people to understand that most of us are just like everyone else, surviving to do the right thing in life.
“And that’s to have gratitude and to respect other people in the world, and hopefully they will respect you.”