Most Torontonians of Jamaican descent a boon to the city

Royson James
Star Columnist

These are the Jamaicans you don’t hear enough about — a high-achieving, prosperous community too often eclipsed by Toronto’s preoccupation with gang violence and street punks.

Chances are they’re your boss, doctor, banker, caregiver, teacher, lawyer, plumber, university chancellor or the judge you’ll face in court tomorrow. But you could easily forget they, too, are Jamaican, so low is their profile.

“Incognegroes, I call them,” says one enterprising Jamaican who himself is a high-stakes Toronto real estate developer, making millions but flying under the radar, out of the spotlight.

Over 24 hours on Sept. 19, seven Star journalists tracked 50 GTA residents of Jamaican descent to record their impact on the Toronto region.

Designed to mark Jamaica’s 50th year as an independent island nation, the project uncovered a vibrant, productive collective that’s virtually indispensable to the GTA. Taken together, Jamaicans are not a problem for Toronto; they are a boon.

It’s a counter-narrative that echoes a maxim from the island of reggae, jerk and world-class sprinters: Jamaicans run t’ings.

The richest of the Jamaicans in our midst, billionaire Michael Lee-Chin, has stewed over this “untold story” many times. A year ago he left a University of the West Indies benefit gala, held at the Four Seasons, walking on air.

The hall was crawling with smart, accomplished, brilliant Jamaicans and other West Indians who were medical directors, head surgeons, corporate CEOs, investment bankers, managers with tens of thousands of Toronto employees under them.

The room was bursting with a demonstration of his community’s reach, power, influence and imprint, but unlike a gun crime, this was not a media event.

“These contributions are not the headlines, so they are unsung,” Lee-Chin seethes. “Our reputation has been ambushed. A few bad men have hijacked our reputation.”

Muted, near invisible, these “incognegroes” are indeed “running t’ings.” The Star found:

• Howard Shearer, 62, the son of Jamaica’s third Prime Minister, as far away as possible from politics, “married” instead to international Japanese firm, Hitachi.

• Gloria Richards, 71, managing the Queen’s Park apartment for the Speaker of the Ontario legislature in a grand third-floor suite. The venerable Richards has been den mother, steward, gatekeeper and consigliore to 14 Speakers of the legislative assembly over 40 years — often spicing up their meals with Jamaican delicacies. She came to Canada in 1965 – as a domestic worker.

• Wonder boy Cornell Wright, 39, living up to a trajectory that started at North Toronto Collegiate. His Jamaican parents always stressed that he merge his Jamaican upbringing with the politics, culture and public engagement of his birthplace. Now, the lawyer at Torys masterminds the largest corporate mergers in Canadian history.

• Fertility specialist Dr. Marjorie Dixon, 38, who, every day, brings joy to the lives of couples struggling to get pregnant.

• High-tech wizard Wayne Purboo whose firm, QuickPlay Media, is one of the fastest-growing in North America. Anyone who watched the summer Olympics on a Bell mobile device did so on a service Purboo’s company created; the last company he worked for sold for $1.2 billion.

• Julie Robinson thriving in a man’s world as construction manager of Canada’s tallest condo tower — and getting a kick out of colleagues who are puzzled at the Jamaican accent coming out of her Caucasian-looking mouth.

• Cordell Samuels, 60, superintendent of the waste water treatment plant that handles 98 per cent of York Region’s waste, and head of a near-century-old American association of water engineers. He’s pinching himself over the achievements of “this little country boy from Deeside, Trelawny, Jamaica”

• Ken Montague, a funky dentist and Renaissance man who plays guitar, collects and curates black art and has his famous clientele jamming to classic reggae while he slices their gums.

Together, they are a profile of a Jamaican community that, says Dr. Dixon, is “intricately intertwined with the infrastructure of the city of Toronto.”

The idea to track these Jamaicans for a day grew from that Lee-Chin interview.

Here was a man who’d donated $30 million to the ROM, $10 million to U of T and $5 million to McMaster as an investment in his adopted city region — and yet he was consumed with the idea that his neighbours and colleagues think Jamaicans are bad news.

“It hurts me. I want the perceptions of us to be more reflective of who we are, of our contributions. We have a reputation we have to clean up. Someone gets shot and you say, ‘Please, God, let it not be a Jamaican.’ You cringe. Every upstanding Jamaican feels the same way. We are embarrassed by it.”

Still, Jamaicans thrive here.

Finding 50 subjects for this project was excruciatingly difficult; there were too many worthy candidates. For an economically impoverished country, Jamaica has spawned some amazing citizens. And their children, now making their mark in Jamaican Diaspora in Toronto and elsewhere, are a stunning collection.

Think of these Torontonians of Jamaican descent: Alvin Curling. Donovan Bailey. Journalist Dwight Drummond. Millionaire Raymond Chang. Justice Michael Tulloch. City Councillor Michael Thompson. Hamlin Grange. Joe Halstead. Julian Falconer. Pamela Appelt. Kardinal Offishall. Nene Kwasi Kafele. Denham Jolly. Mary Anne Chambers. Professor Carl James. Writers Olive Senior, Rachel Manley, Afua Cooper. Trevor Massey. Gail Vaz-Oxlade. Not one of these high achievers is on our list. The bench is that deep.

Criminal lawyer Donald McLeod, 44, has seen both sides of the community and explains it this way.

The next generation is using the indomitable spirit of their Jamaican parents to fashion a new dialectic — a new conversation – no matter how humble their upbringing.

“They take the common sense of the ghetto and make it intellectual,” says McLeod, who dresses as sharply as he makes closing arguments in court. After all, he’s a client of one of the hottest tailors in the city — bespoke tailor Marlon Durrant, one of our subjects.

North York General surgeon Dr. Everton Gooden, 43, started off as a poor student at George Harvey Collegiate, had that light-bulb moment, worked his butt off to improve his grades every year, all through high school, university and med school, and wouldn’t be deterred from the goal — even when teachers told him a professional career isn’t for everyone.

When he was a student working his way through med school, a surgeon shooed him away from the window while he peered in on an operation, telling him to never do that again. He returned, and this time the head surgeon saw him and gave him an escorted tour.

“It was highly motivating,” Gooden says.

A common refrain among the Jamaican 50 was the self-confidence and can-do spirit instilled in them by Jamaican parents. And a critical mass is building to the point where the next generation of Jamaicans are exploding beyond the arena of sports and entertainment – avenues over-populated by the early immigrants.

Patients do a double-take when they see that the highly-recommended surgeon Dr. Gooden is a black guy. “They re shocked,” he says. “It’s not what they expect. I’m proud of that. It says, study hard and be good. You can make a difference by being visible.”

There is such a lack of positive exposure for these Jamaicans and an abundance of the negative that the Goodens and McLeods and Cornell Wrights often are projected as the exemption to the rule, McLeod says.

“But we are the rule. We are the unwritten rule. Nobody hears about us because we are doing so good.

“Here we have a society of Jamaican-Canadians and the ones we focus on aren’t the ones worth billions to our economy, but the ones shooting each other on the corner.”

The Allen family is a perfect example of the Jamaican immigrant family that must bristle when they hear about the normative Jamaican kid growing up in a single-parent home.

Gregory and Judy Allen raised three kids in their Brampton home: Marlene, a teacher; Greg, Jr., like Dad an engineer, working at dad’s company, SNC Lavalin; and Tara, a neonatologist and pediatric respirologist.

The success didn’t come by accident.

“They didn’t want to hear any talk about, ‘because you are black,’ ” Dr. Tara Allen explains from the parents’ kitchen table, Mom and Dad watching warily. “They said that was a cop out. You’re going to have to go beyond the ordinary. You cannot be average.”

“They are old-fashioned Jamaican immigrant parents,” explains Marlene. “I don’t know how many friends I have lost because of the rules in this house.”

The enthusiasm with which these star citizens embraced the project speaks volumes. They want to express their love for Canada and Toronto while affirming the land of their birth or the home of their parents.

Cornell Wright, 39, could easily melt away into his upper-class enclave and forget about his roots. Instead, he’s actively engaged in the diversity efforts and community initiatives at Torys.

“This is where we live,” Wright says. “Our parents and grandparents earned all of that so we can be fully engaged in all aspects of Canadian life. I believe we are in a transition period . . . There’s a critical mass of people achieving great success in their field.

“You’ll see more people emerge from our community and play a critical role in the city. Our parents created opportunities for us. We are well-positioned to do exciting things.”

Then there is Dionne Sinclair, banished to a non-academic stream in London in the 1970s, but who persisted to get two master’s degrees and a position as a hospital nurse manager, and who has a huge following as a fitness instructor.

“I do not have a victim mentality,” she says. “I know that I can achieve because, as a child growing up in Jamaica, I did not face racism or prejudice. There was never a question that I could not achieve anything I set my mind to.”

So when she faces negative stereotypes, Sinclair says she responds like this: “I’m no baby mama and I’m definitely no mule for nobody’s drugs. My mom put four kids through university working as a housekeeper in a hospital.

“I tell the kids all the time, anybody can succeed in Toronto.”