This essay, Displacement, Migration and Student Identity/Reality, was shared with us by Christelle Saint-Julien, as her contribution to our bordered-realities community consultation. Christelle is a Montreal-based writer, translator, poet, musician, blogger and editor-in-chief of literary blog Le Shindig. You can find the original online publication here alongside the image created for this piece by Mackenzie Teek.
I was born in Montreal in 1991.
Before settling here, my parents emigrated from Haïti. My mother, who came here a few decades later than my father, settled in Quebec in 1990. She came to build a new life and learn a culture while simultaneously learning how to raise children.
I graduated from high school in 2008, from Dawson College in 2010 and from Concordia University in 2013.
I am fortunate to be able to say that I am someone who knows herself really well. This partly comes from having been grown with a little, close-knit circle of two parents, and two brothers that I’m very close in age with. No extended family within the same country, very little outside role models, and yet — a lot of freedom. Such a peculiar setting left a lot of place for introspection, especially if you are ‘’different” from the few figures of your immediate circle, like an ugly duckling figuring out how to become a beautiful black swan.
My parents, bless them, taught me to embrace every aspect of my uncommon personality while trying to make me a functional member of society. They did so unconsciously, to the best of their ability and instinct, with no resources, help or family to guide them. Now as an adult, I can recognize how, from these sacrifices and my education, I will never be as bereft as they were, not that they knew this.
This pair raised me to be independent, to always make the best use of my intelligence and talent, to protect myself from outside adversity, to be a good citizen and a feminist. A recluse upbringing only made me realise very late in life that in the places I would navigate, I would often be referred to as other due to my traits and the colour of my skin.
Outside of travelling (in planes, cars, busses, trains, books, music, art and on the internet), all I have known is Montréal, Québec. Before graduating university, I had spent 17 years straight in school. Believe me, I loved school. I was one of these kids (and later, adults) who just loved learning. A curiosity that is insatiable, an introvert personality, a positive, idealist mindset, and also, a strong aptitude for academic subjects, and a notorious stubbornness that pushes me to finish what I started. The latter statements weighs the most in my many contemplations of dropping out, but I did not. Even despite debt from having no outside financial support.
I will always considered the schools I went to as my homes. However, coming from intergenerational displacement, I always felt misplaced within the establishment to which I paid tuition and spent countless hours of my young life.
Jump ahead to now.
I did not learn about about the 1969 Sir George Williams events on the 9th floor of the Hall building until last year, when I went to a screening of the movie Ninth Floor by Mina Shum at Cinema Du Parc. I found out about the movie browsing the theatre’s schedule. This is the school I attended. The real-life protagonists in the movie could have been my father, who moved to Montreal four years after the events took place.
The only places I found some kind of identity relief were in the Caribbean and African literature which changed my life, or in the (non-classical) music history that I devoured.
I have mostly been the sole black female student for most of my academic journey. This is due to several different factors, from the demographic to cultural, from my interests to systemic stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean anything. In a classroom, the students are not the teachers. Academic institutions, at least at the time I attended, did not have a perspective that reflected their clientele — a diverse, mixed-background pool. As if the Canadian academic curricula and values, or to a lesser extent Montreal were exclusively white, when these places were built thanks to the contributions of different communities. So, we are taught critical thinking in school, but also that your point of view does not apply.
Such a divide is real, although intangible. Before I was able put words on it, I was discouraged from pursuing graduate studies. From my biased point of view, the professional world was somewhat more inclusive — in the sense that you can select the people you collaborate with. So, I migrated.
However, I am an example of success — I have a great career, I have the chance to lead and take part of amazing projects that I am so fond of, and I pursue artistic endeavours with enthusiasm and passion. I am constantly counting my blessings. I have the privilege to be able to voice my thoughts and opinions.
My story is boring. So is my parents’. It is a story of hard work, resilience and erasure — an experience and perspective that can only be accounted for through oral tradition, it seems. But also, it has been a good life, in so many ways.
So many things have changed since I have left school. For these reasons, I don’t have many solutions to propose. I only have a few observations.
Such projects as the Critical Feminist Activism in Research are crucial and cannot remain insular. It is our obligation and duty to make these viable, enforced, and diffused campus-wide. We must not pat ourselves on the shoulder congratulating ourselves for the work well done from the sole intention of wanting to change things.
We cannot solely count on the willingness and diligence of students to reach out, join and take part. Resources and news have to travel cross-departmentally — use a newsletter, social media, I don’t know. If we want to know who our students are, we have to get at them.
Or else, mandates are changed, but customs are not. And when that happens, we find ourselves guilty by the law of association. There is a future in our hands.