Return of the Dads: one Scarborough father’s simple solution to his community’s most taboo problem

Return of the Dads: one Scarborough father’s simple solution to his community’s most taboo problem

The most taboo question in Toronto’s Caribbean and African communities is why half of black fathers refuse to help raise their kids. One father, the son of an absent dad himself, has a simple solution

From left: Kwasi Peasah, Brandon Hay and Marlon Osei-Tutu. 

Last year, a group of gangbangers got together at a community centre at Jane and Finch to talk about what it’s like to be a dad. They ranged in age from 15 to 24, and some had already served time in jail more than once. Because these young men belonged to different gangs, the location of the meeting was chosen carefully to be on neutral ground.

Each of the participants had been cajoled to attend by a parole officer, a case manager or a gang prevention worker, and each received $20 for making it in the door. At first, they were skeptical, their jaws set, reluctant to speak at all. Brandon Hay, the group’s 32-year-old facilitator, introduced himself by revealing his own background, that he’s a father too, of three boys, and that it’s the hardest job he’s ever had. Hay is tall and balding and heavy-set, with lion cubs inked down one arm. His smile is magnetic and his eyes serene behind octagonal glasses. He told a story about his first extended outing alone with his eldest son, Tristan, then less than a year old. On the way home, Tristan began to scream and cry in the back seat, and Hay couldn’t console him. He frantically pulled off the highway into a gas station, drenched in sweat, and called his girlfriend to ask what he should do. The next time his son threw a fit, he was better prepared. The point was: you just have to keep trying. Hay invited the others to tell their own stories, which they did one by one, and suddenly there was a nearly imperceptible shift whereby Hay was no longer in the conversation and the guys were talking among themselves.

Brandon Hay, 32, founded the Black Daddies Club because he couldn’t find parenting resources tailored to him and his friends

One man, a soft-spoken 24-year-old who grew up in the Driftwood Court housing project, talked about serving four years in Kingston’s federal penitentiary for armed robbery and drug trafficking. While there, he spent time in solitary confinement, away from the other 400-plus inmates, and meditated on his mistakes. When he started his sentence, his daughter was only a few months old. As the days ticked by, he thought about how much of her early life he was missing. Now that he’s free, he’s turning his life around; he’s back in school studying at George Brown, and he’s won custody of his daughter on weekends.

Hay nodded his head and surveyed the room. The evening was an experiment, and it was going better than he had expected. Hay is a director of a support group called the Black Daddies Club. Since he founded the BDC in 2007, he had been trying various methods of getting black men together to talk about their experiences as fathers, and to encourage them to be better parents. Gang members were an especially difficult group to crack. Hay holds sessions across the city—in barbershops, community centres and borrowed offices—with black fathers from all backgrounds. He lists upcoming dates on the BDC’s website, on a Facebook page and in the African- and Caribbean-Canadian magazine Sway. Sometimes as few as five men show up; sometimes as many as 25. Every session is casual and unpredictable, and the goal is a kind of group therapy.

Hay was raised by a single mom, and when he became a dad at 23 he noticed how many people assumed he would walk away from raising his own kids. Then he noticed that other black fathers in his community had low expectations of themselves, too. So he decided to tackle the apathy, a few dads at a time. Hay believes that making these men care about fatherhood will also help them off the criminal path and keep their kids from repeating the cycle. It’s a lofty goal. And it’s bigger than one man can handle.

Kwasi Peasah, 26, lives at Jane and Driftwood Avenue and has a six-month-old son

“I don’t live with my girlfriend, and she has custody of my son. Two months ago, I had my little man for half a day, and I fed and burped him, but he wouldn’t go to sleep. I must have walked blocks. He was whining and crying, and I thought to myself: this is the type of situation we talk about at the Black Daddies Club. I had to keep in mind he’s an infant, he doesn’t know much, and I had to have patience. I rocked him, I sang to him, played him some R&B music—that’s just some of the training we get at the club.”

One in four Toronto families is headed by a single parent. But in the black community, nearly 50 per cent of children are living with a lone parent, and 80 per cent of those children are being raised by their mothers. Absent fatherhood is also dramatically higher in Toronto’s black community than in other visible minorities.

On Father’s Day 2008, Barack Obama, during his run for the White House, took the pulpit at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago and gave what would become one of his most controversial speeches. His subject: absent black fathers in America. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men,” he said. “And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.” Obama’s speech came on the heels of a series of similar—if less eloquent—pronouncements by another famous black father, Bill Cosby, and pushed the taboo subject onto the front page. Many prominent black Americans commended Obama for his speech, but pundits on the left and right also criticized him for trying to win more non-black votes by appealing to white stereotypes of black men.

There is little consensus on what’s behind the high number of absent fathers. Blacks often dismiss the phenomenon as a cultural trait among Jamaicans or West Indians—not something shared by the entire black population. It’s also blamed on factors such as unemployment and racism. Until the 1960s, Canada’s immigration policies gave explicit preference to white immigrants, and most of the very small black population was composed of descendants of fugitive U.S. slaves. The policy changed partly because of growing pressure from the civil rights movement, but also because Canada was facing a shortage of skilled labour. Nurses and teachers were recruited, and often men couldn’t get status and were left behind—which resulted in many women raising children on their own. By 2006, Canada’s black population reached 783,795, making it the third-largest visible minority group. Toronto’s black immigrants come primarily from Jamaica, Barbados, Ghana and Somalia and settled in the Jane-Finch corridor and in the Scarborough neighbourhoods of Malvern and West Hill.

Brandon Hay and other black community activists also cite the high rate of incarceration of black men as a factor in the number of children being raised without fathers. In Ontario, blacks make up 3.9 per cent of the general population, and yet 11.2 per cent of the prison population is black. Soon after he founded the BDC, Hay was asked to make a presentation to a group of young offenders in a detention centre on the how-tos of reintegrating into society. He was startled that the majority of men who attended were black fathers. “The number of black men wasn’t representative of the outside population,” he says. “I wanted to understand why the cycle continued. People couldn’t find work and were financially desperate, unable to support their children, so they walked away and turned to crime.”

The phenomenon of absent fathers is often dismissed as a cultural trait among Jamaicans and West Indians—not something shared by the entire black population

Though most of the men who attend the Black Daddies Club sessions and share their stories are like Hay—fathers who have made a decision to break the absent fatherhood cycle—not all are successful in their attempts to turn their lives around. At the meetings, Hay has met unemployed fathers who spend their days drinking and smoking weed and watching porn.

Marlon Osei-Tutu, 25, lives in Brampton and has two-year-old twin daughters

“My dad helped raise me, and I always intended to do the same thing when I had kids. But when I found out I was going to be a father, the timing wasn’t good: I was in university, my dad had recently passed away, and I was having a hard time with my girlfriend. Two of my friends told me about the Black Daddies Club and suggested I needed the support. I ended up seeing a lot of dudes I know at the meetings. Some of them I didn’t even know had kids. When my twins were born, what it did to me—I can’t even explain that feeling. The moment I saw them and they held on to my finger, that was just like—this is great. My two girls now live in Ottawa with their mother—she’s in school—and I try to visit them every time I get a chance.”

One regular attendee of the BDC barbershop sessions is Antwonne Thomas, a 28-year-old social worker who has two daughters born to two different women. As a teen, he was involved with what he calls “street culture” until his friends began to carry guns and get into trouble with the cops, at which point he distanced himself by moving across town to Scarborough, where he lived with relatives. Now he’s more involved in his daughters’ lives and is one of the BDC’s biggest advocates, imploring his friends to join and take responsibility for what he and other BDC members proudly call their “seed.”

Brandon Hay was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1979, the only child of Lornalee Anderson, and the second of eight children born to his father, Brian Hay. As a kid, Brandon idolized his dad, though he saw him rarely. His favourite hangout was his paternal grandmother’s house, where he might run into his dad. Sometimes Brian Hay would roll up in a big, brown Chevy Nova and take all his kids to the beach. But Hay’s bad memories of his dad—what he calls the memories of broken promises—outweigh the good. His dad would promise to arrive Saturday at noon and Brandon would wait at his front gate an hour early, so he wouldn’t miss him, but then an hour would pass, then two, then three, until nightfall, with no sign of his dad’s car.

Lornalee Anderson packed up her life and left Jamaica when Brandon was 10, lured by the promise of a better life in North America, moving the two of them first to New York, then London, Ontario, then, finally, Toronto, settling in an apartment at Birchmount and Finch. In Jamaica, Anderson was a bank teller; her first job in Toronto was cleaning banks. They didn’t have much furniture, just a small TV from Zellers, a couch and a bed for his mom. His clothes were from BiWay and Honest Ed’s. All this made him a perfect target for schoolyard bullying. Eventually, though, he grew to love his neighbourhood—unlike in London, he wasn’t the only black kid in his class—and he and his mom started to make friends. His dad was an infrequent voice on the phone who didn’t do much more than mete out long-distance punishment when Hay got into typical teenage trouble, like missing curfew and skipping class.

At 16, Hay boarded a plane for a summer-long trip to visit his grandmother and father in Jamaica. His dad and older brother, Mark, picked him up at the airport. Hay embraced his brother, but shook his dad’s hand like he was a stranger and called him Brian. Over the course of his stay, as he got to know his dad, his armour wore away, and father and son bonded over a shared love of Motown.

A few years later, when Hay was 22, his girlfriend, Aqueelah Ashby, became pregnant. Hay panicked; he was living in his mom’s basement in Malvern and had a job selling shoes at Sears in the Eaton Centre. He was still paying off student loans for a diploma he’d earned in marketing at Seneca College. He was the first in his circle of friends to become a father. They were in school and going to clubs, and Hay wasn’t ready to be the only dad in his group, or a dad at all.

“I didn’t really have a plan,” says Hay. “I thought when I had my kids it would be on my terms, in my early 30s, after I got married.” At the time, Ashby was working as a cashier at a Home Depot, and Hay doubted they could support a child. He proposed abortion or adoption, but Ashby refused both. They finally agreed she would move in with Hay and his mom. He loved Ashby, and he wanted desperately to be a good dad—to not be the occasional father his own dad had been—but he also felt like an outsider looking in. He read everything he could find on being a parent, read all the same books Ashby was reading. He attended prenatal classes with her, but noticed everything focused on the mothers. Even worse, he was often the only black man in the room. In one class in the Beach, he was convinced everyone was looking at him and wondering why he was there.

Colwyn Burchall, 37, lives at Keele and Sheppard and has two sons, three and seven

“My wife, Cherise Carey, and I moved to Canada from Bermuda in 2009. I heard about the club from a friend and looked it up. Brandon Hay and the other men have helped me gain confidence as a father and underscored that I need to be there for my boys. The only way you could stop me from being involved in raising them would be to kill me, in which case I would probably haunt them—just like Casper the friendly ghost.”

Hay and Ashby’s son Tristan was born in 2002. Hay heard from friends about a neighbourhood community centre with helpful parenting classes. He assumed there would be a program offered for dads—he was even hopeful there might be a program specifically for black dads. He was out of luck. “I got this overwhelming feeling that society was saying my role was small—I was only part of the supporting cast,” he says. When he returned home, he scoured the Internet for information on black fathers—maybe he could find some online resources, a pamphlet, a chat group, anything. The only hits that showed up on Google were about deadbeats, pimps and porn stars.

In 2004, 10 years after his first trip back to Jamaica, Hay had to return again, this time to bury his father. Brian Hay had been murdered outside a bar he owned in Spanish Town. When Brandon saw his dad’s corpse, nine bullet holes punched through his still body, he buckled at the knees. That spinning-falling feeling stayed with him the entire trip.

Brian Hay’s killer was an 11-year-old boy who was paid $200 for the job and who, two weeks later, was executed himself by the same men who hired him. The police didn’t seem to care that Hay was shot by a kid, or why the kid had been killed. There was no outcry. When Brandon returned home to Toronto, he started to notice the same destructive patterns—people waging senseless turf wars, child­ren being shot, children growing up without fathers.

Although Hay initially resisted the idea of marriage—he had seen his own parents’ relationship fail miserably—he wanted to give his kids the family he didn’t have. He and Ashby were married in 2007 at city hall. By this time, they had two more sons, Julian and Elijah, and were living in an apartment in Malvern. Ashby steadily worked her way up from Home Depot cashier to assistant store manager, but her husband was out of work twice during Tristan’s early years, and on EI for months at a time. By the time the couple decided to get married, Hay had earned another two diplomas—in music business at the Trebas Institute and in event planning at George Brown—but was still bouncing around from job to job, unable to stick to a direction, sometimes falling into a deep depression.

Hay’s own identity struggles as a father were still dominating his thoughts. During the months he was on EI and picking Tristan up from daycare, he had an epiphany: if he was looking for answers, hoping to learn how to be a good and present dad, maybe others were as well, and maybe they found nothing geared to them and that’s why so many black men gave up and walked away. Maybe he could fill the void—for himself and others. He began to take notes on an organization he wanted to form, where black men could talk about being dads. Hay brought it up again and again among his friends, who, by now, were having their own kids or thinking about fatherhood.

He founded the Black Daddies Club on Facebook in 2007. Its membership quickly grew, and it currently counts around 800. The majority of those who first joined, however, were women, which wasn’t promising for a group intent on getting men to assume their full share of parental responsibility. Hay decided to start holding BDC events in barbershops, during business hours, since men would already be in attendance and group conversation was the norm. The first BDC group session was at a barbershop in Brampton called Loc n’ Twist. Hay ordered food from a neighbouring West Indian restaurant—he thought people would talk more if they were well-fed.

Fifteen people showed up. While Hay often discusses the issue of absent fathers in interviews, he rarely addresses it explicitly at Black Daddies events. He prefers to guide conversation around topics that will engage black men in their roles as dads. At that first session, Hay asked how people felt about Africentric schools, then a hot topic, and whether parents would send their kids to one. It was a success: the fathers were thoughtful and eager to discuss the subject and seemed happy someone had asked their opinions.

Antwonne Thomas, 28,
lives at Markham Road and Eglinton and has two daughters, four and six

“Before I had kids, I pinned little baby shoes—pink Jordans—up on my bedroom wall, and my friends would lookat them and say, ‘You don’t have a kid, do you?’ and I’d say, ‘No,’ and they’d say, ‘What the hell is wrong with you? You lost your mind.’ My first girl was born when I was 21, and I had my second daughter with a different woman. My daughters’ mothers don’t like each other, so it’s difficult for me to bring my two beautiful girls together. They both live with their moms: my eldest is nearby, but my youngest lives in Mississauga, and I only see her maybe once a month, which I know is unacceptable.”

Hay hosted more sessions in other barbershops across the city, as well as in a jail and in schools and community centres. In 2009, he teamed up with the Urban Recreation Association of Toronto to host a picnic for black families in Orono Park in Bowmanville. More than 400 people showed up for the event, spending the afternoon swimming, playing games, eating and chatting. Hay sold Black Daddies T-shirts with the slogan “A movement built on love.” To keep the BDC’s momentum going, he scheduled more barbershop sessions, and he secured free tickets for black dads and their kids to Raptors games and museum exhibitions. He invited the media to it all, imploring them to write stories showing black fathers in a positive light. Sway magazine invited the BDC to contribute a weekly column on fatherhood issues.

By this point, Hay had a job in marketing at Sony’s head office, but his work with the BDC was becoming all-consuming. He had some help from three volunteers: Rehema Vuo, a PR professional who handles the group’s publicity, Temi Davidson, a member of the Black Community–Police Consultative Committee, and a web developer named Kareem Perez. They had no office and ran the club out of their own homes. The club’s budget grew to around $5,000 a year—money from Hay’s own pocket as well as whatever he could fundraise from the community, which all went toward the cost of food, marketing and venues for the BDC’s various gatherings. Neither Hay nor his facilitators receive a salary.

Then, in 2010, Hay lost his job at Sony during a round of layoffs, and the club’s future became uncertain. “I was like, fuck, I can’t do this,” he says. “Forget Black Daddies Club, because it doesn’t make sense for me to be about community if I can’t provide for my family. I felt like….” He trails off and runs a slip of pink tongue back and forth across his lips like a windshield wiper. This is what Hay does when he’s searching for the right words. After a moment, he admits that he felt like a failure, utterly unqualified to run a support group like the BDC. He put the club on a half-year hiatus while he looked for work.

Hay found two jobs, both in social work. He’s now a part-time coordinator of a young men’s workshop at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. He’s also a facilitator for a young fathers counseling program at the June Callwood Centre for Young Women, on Parliament. It means a lot of 12-hour days, but he’s happy. “Besides,” says Ashby, “he knows when it’s taking away too much time from the family—and he makes up for it.”

As tough as 2010 was, Ashby encouraged her husband to find a way to keep Black Daddies going. When Hay first started the organization, she wasn’t sure it was worth the effort—what effect it could have, what direction, if any, her husband was going in. Over the last four years, though, she noticed her husband spending more time with his sons, doing homework, playing basketball, everything. If the club could make him a more responsible father, why not others?

Mark Reid 42, lives at Warden and Finch and has two sons, 11 and 13

“I’m raising my two boys on my own—I’m divorced from their mom, who lives in Ottawa—which I know makes me a rarity in my community. Two years ago, I found out about the BDC on Facebook and went to one of the barbershop meetings. It’s a great thing to do—to support other black men in my situation, and to be supported by them. It gives me a sense of affirmation that I’m on the right track with my own kids.”

Over the three months I met with Hay, his description of his ambitions for the BDC seemed to grow and shrink with his moods—a sign, he says, that he needs to be more focused. What he doesn’t like to admit is that more women than men still apply to sit on the club’s committees and board. The club may be about converting men into good dads, but many of them aren’t interested.

Members of the BDC have questioned why Hay takes on some of the projects and initiatives he does. For instance, last November the BDC hosted a public discussion panel in a Ryerson lecture hall on the subject of homophobia in the black community. In the weeks leading up to the event, Hay encountered blowback from both the straight and the queer communities. The latter was unhappy with the invitation to the event Hay sent, which quoted an American therapist named Bonnie Kaye, who is known for her controversial self-help book Is He Straight? The Checklist for Women Who Wonder. Some straight black people didn’t understand why the BDC, an organization already occupied with one seemingly insurmountable social issue, was hosting the event at all. Hay’s response: homophobia and absentee fathers are both symptoms of the same culturally entrenched attitudes. Homophobia is deeply established in the Caribbean culture, particularly among Jamaican-Canadians. If better, more supportive black fathers are the answer to gangs and violence, then, he believes, they must be the answer to ending homophobia, too. Educate and enlighten the men, and they’ll pass on those values to their sons.

In his more fanciful moments, Hay aspires to turn the BDC into a for-profit institution with locations around the world, all spreading the same message according to a Black Daddies curriculum. But he can’t answer my questions on what that curriculum would look like—he hasn’t developed it. There is no real data, he says, there are no studies, no statistics on what works and what doesn’t.

How do you measure a change in attitude across a community? He could hire a pollster, or conduct his own surveys, but then there’s the problem of what kind of questions he should ask, when so many people in the black community are reluctant to even broach the idea that the number of absentee fathers is a crisis. For proof of the BDC’s effectiveness, Hay points instead to the hundreds of people who have attended Black Daddies sessions over its existence, the weekly requests for more information, the 17-year-old gang member who’s helping his girlfriend raise their child. Hay once admitted to me that he knows he might not live to see whether the BDC is the solution that finally lifts his community up and over its grimmest realities. But he’s a tenacious and determined guy.

It’s like this fable he once heard, he says. There were these two buckets filled with milk, and somebody came along and dropped a frog into each bucket. Both the frogs started paddling, little green legs zipping around in circles for hours. Eventually, one frog gave up hope and his tiny body dropped to the bottom and drowned. The other frog, he just kept paddling until the milk churned into butter. That little frog was suddenly on solid ground. Solid enough for him to jump out of that damn bucket. That’s it, he’s free.