Foster, Cecil (A.) 1954

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Cecil (A.) Foster 1954


Became Muckraking Journalist

Novel Chronicled Émigré Tragedy

Emerged as Leading Critical Voice

Dual Career Continued

Selected writings


Toronto journalist Cecil Foster is the author of A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada, as well as an autobiography, Island Wings: A Memoir, that recalled his journey from Caribbean poverty to Canadas multicultural literary establishment. He is also the author of novels that explore the African-Caribbean experience, one of which prompted Quill & Quires Carol Berger to herald him as a wise man with a flair for story-telling and writing that enters the heart.

Foster was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1954, and grew up in a poor neighborhood called Lodge Road. At the time, Barbados was a colonial possession of Britain. His father was a musician who went to England the same year Foster was born, and his mother soon followed, leaving behind Foster and his two older brothers. They initially lived with their grandparents, but dire economic circumstances forced a great-grandmother to take them in instead. Much of this early life was chronicled in Fosters first novel, No Man in the House, through the narrative voice of young Howard Prescod, whose parents have also emigrated. In mid-1960s Barbados, Howard waits in vain for his parents to send for him, but finds a father figure in the form of his schools headmaster, Mr. Bradshaw, who is the first black to hold the joba sign of changing times on the island. Mr. Bradshaw encourages Howard to take the high-school entrance exam, but more importantly, advocates independence from Britain, which helps Howard see the connection between his familys dire straits and the islands problems, noted a Publishers Weekly review, which called it a finely crafted, affecting debut.

Became Muckraking Journalist

Independence for Barbados did occur, when Foster was 12, but the sweeping changes also ushered in a period of social unrest. He remembered this time in his autobiography, Island Wings, recalling the abuse he suffered at the hands of family members as well as outside the home. With few exceptions, the men I encountered in Barbados were bullies, he wrote. Their claim to fame usually corresponded to how much they hurt people, whether strangers or family. But like Howard Prescod, Foster was encouraged by teachers, and entered Harrison College, the top post secondary school in Barbados. He studied mass communications, and went to work as a teacher for a time, but changed careers when he took a job with the Caribbean News Agency in 1975. Journalism, he felt, suited him well. There was something magnetic about news, he wrote in Island Wings. The magic of information and entertainment, of transmitting thoughts and ideas and getting a rise out of people reasons why I had long dreamed of becoming a communicator. Teaching and news reportingdidnt they have the same intent and purpose of trying to pass on information and knowledge?

In 1977 Foster became a reporter and columnist with the Barbados Advocate News, but the articles he wrote were sometimes critical of the government, and he found himself the target of threats. He left Barbados

At a Glance

Born September 26, 1954, in Bridgetown, Barbados; son of Fred (a musician) and Doris Goddard; married Glenys Cadogan; children: Munyonzwe, Michelio, Mensah. Education: Harrison College of Barbados, diploma in mass communications; York University, B.B.A., B.A. (with honors).

Career: Journalist and author. Teacher in Barbados; Caribbean News Agency, senior reporter and editor, 197577; Barbados Advocate News, reporter and columnist, 197779; Toronto Star, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, reporter, 197982; Contrast, Toronto, editor, 197982; Transportation Business Management, editor, 198283; Globe and Mail, Toronto, reporter, 198389; Financial Post, senior editor, 1989-; also served as special adviser to Ontarios Ministry of Culture, mid-1990s.

Member: PEN Canada, director, 1992-; Writers Union of Canada; Harambee Cultural Centres; Canadian Artist Network; Blacks in Action.

Addresses: Home 25 Greenbush Cres., Thornhill, Ontario L4J 5M3, Canada.

for Canada in 1979. Working for the Toronto Star as a reporter, he earned two degrees from York University, and also found a second post that would give him many important contacts within Torontos growing Caribbean population as editor of Contrast, the black communitys newspaper. Foster went on to work at the citys leading paper, the Globe and Mail, before becoming a senior editor at the Financial Post in 1989.

Novel Chronicled Émigré Tragedy

Fosters career as published author began in 1991 with No Man in the House, but that same year he also published a nonfiction book, Distorted Mirror: Canadas Racist Face. His next work returned him to the novel format: Sleep On, Beloved, which appeared in 1995, explored the experience of the Caribbean émigré to Canada through the story of a young woman from Jamaica and her struggles. Ona is 17 and a single mother when she leaves her home, chafing under the religious strictness of her minister mother and wishing for a more prosperous future for herself and her infant daughter. She obtains a visa to become a domestic worker in Toronto, but is surprised to learn that she may not take her daughter Suzanne with her because of immigration laws.

Ona leaves the ten-month-old with her own mother, and vows to send for her when she has saved enough money. But Suzanne is 12 when Ona finally manages to do so, having overcome a series of challenging circumstancesand then Suzanne does not want to leave her grandmother and the only home she has known all her life to live in a cold country with someone she considers a stranger. In Toronto, Suzanne is stunned by the quiet despite the urban setting. In Jamaica, there was always the sound of a bird in the trees, a cricket in the grass, someone singing loudly next door, the wind just blowing, she thinks. Her adjustment difficulties extend to school, which only exacerbates the tensions at home. Foster expertly recreates the sense of detachment that the child feels after she arrives, and her growing alienation as she passes through her teen years, noted Macleans reviewer Donna Nurse, who observed that the novel unfolds with the inevitability of tragedy. And Foster presents Onas physical and psychological distance from Jamaica as the fatal flaw that necessarily invites her familys demise. Sleep On, Beloved also won the author a positive critique from another source. Fosters characters impress with their lifelike assortment of strengths and failings, noted a Publishers Weekly review, though it did echo the sentiment of another review in noting that the difficulties experienced by Ona did seem a bit heavy-handed, but stated that Foster nevertheless depicted the way in which a series of daily small defeats can erode the firmest of objectives.

Emerged as Leading Critical Voice

In 1996 Foster wrote A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada, a nonfiction work that examined the changes in the African-Canadian experience in history up to the present time. African-Caribbean immigrants to the country, as the book noted, were once officially discouraged as unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada. He discussed the changes wrought by the civil rights movement in recent generations, and noted that while many have achieved prosperity, the majority still suffer economic hardship. The work also contrasted the situation of Canadas black population with those who settled in the United States, and finds that the neighbor to the south, after some hard-won battles to eradicate slavery and intolerance, seems to offer more opportunities for blacks. He observed that many Americans of African-Caribbean descent have risen to prominence, such as actor/singer Harry Belafonte, religious leader Louis Farrakhan, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Foster interviewed some prominent Canadian blacks for his book, including Julius Isaac, Chief Justice of Canadas Federal Court, a native of Grenada, and a former government minister, Alvin Curling. He also visits Clinton Gayle, a Canadian of Jamaican heritage who was at the time jailed for the murder of a police officer in Toronto; here Foster sees the medias fixation on Gayles Jamaican background as evidence of mainstream racist attitudes, noted Nurse in another Macleans review. The author also recounted his own experiences with racism in Canada, and wonders what the future will hold for his young sons. Indeed, the real charm of the book is in getting to know Fosters own developing perspective, noted Humanist in Canada reviewer Tom Langford. At the time of its publication, Foster hosted a radio show on a media outlet known for its conservative views, and as he had in A Place Called Heaven, argued that black voters in Quebeca province in the midst of a contentious separatist battle at the timeshould give their political support to whichever side, federalist or separatist, promised constitutional discussions to address the iniquities for black Canadians. On this last issue, Foster asserted that it was not a cynical attitude, as he told Nurse in an interview for Macleans. We have entered into an era of self-interest. Blacks have a long history in this country that goes back to the Empire Loyalists and even further in Quebec. We can force the federal government to make us feel wanted.

A Place Called Heaven earned largely positive reviews. Foster doesnt shy away from criticism; he dares to slay sacred cows, and in the process asks some tough questions of the black community and of Canada, noted a review in Quill & Quire written by Ken Alexander. Potential readers should be forewarned that Foster wants to provoke controversy, not make readers feel warm and fuzzy about what a great place Canada is for Blacks, noted Langford in Humanist in Canada, but concluded it remains an insightful and accessible book which deserves a broad readership.

Dual Career Continued

Fosters autobiography, Island Wings, was published in 1998. He recalled the story of his parents, his difficult childhood years, and how he found mentors in both his extended family members and among the larger community. Along the way, Globe and Mail writer Clifton Joseph wrote, Foster tells us about the history of Barbados; discusses the politics of the region; offers some interesting observations about the development and role of journalism in West Indian society; and recounts tales of friends, schoolmates and the community of Lodge Road, where he grew up. The work received a positive assessment from Macleans critic John Bemrose, who termed it an engaging tribute to the power of the hearts connections in overriding all sorts of disadvantages.

Foster wrote a third novel that appeared in print in 1998 as well. Slammin Tar possessed a truly intriguing premise, remarked Nurse in the Globe and Mail. He attempts to dramatize the psychological limbo of black Canadian immigrants who feel increasingly less at home in the islands, yet remain unaccepted here. The work recounts the experiences of Johnny Franklin, a man in his early forties who has worked as a migrant laborer on an Ontario tobacco farm for much of his adult life. Along with other Barbadian men there, they spent ten months working in the fields and living in cabins, and send their meager wages home to their families. Playing by the rules, they hope, will eventually lead to an opportunity to settle in Canada permanently. The idea of slamming tar, or hitting the pavement, however, plagues some of Johnnys co-workers, who dream of running away to the city and disappearing into its Caribbean expatriate community which would make them illegal immigrants.

As Slammin Tar progresses, the farm on which the men toil spirals toward bankruptcy, and their situation grows worse. A newcomer, Winston, challenged their complacent way of thinking, but a surprise plot twist brings the work toward its conclusion. The story, moreover, is not narrated by Johnny Franklin, but through Anansi, a spider who has traveled with Johnny in his luggage from the island. Anansi is a folklore figure from Africa, and provides the commentary that compares the plight of Johnny and Winston to those who arrived in North America generations earlier as slaves from Africa. Berger, writing in Quill & Quire, called Slammin Tar a moving chronicle about the lives of working men. That it preserves the dignity of labour while exposing the sorrow of men is a testament to Fosters deep respect for his characters.

Selected writings

Distorted Mirror: Canadas Racist Face, HarperCollins (Toronto), 1991.

No Man in the House (novel), Random House (Toronto), 1991, Ballantine (New York), 1992.

Sleep On, Beloved (novel), Ballantine (New York), 1995.

A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada, HarperCollins (Toronto), 1996.

Slammin Tar (novel), Random House (Toronto), 1998.

Island Wings: A Memoir, HarperCollins (Toronto), 1998.



Globe and Mail, March 21, 1998, p. D10; September 5, 1998, p. D11.

Humanist in Canada, winter 1998, pp. 2829.

Macleans, May 22, 1995, p. 65; January 13, 1997, p. 66; September 21, 1998, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1992, p. 62; April 3, 1995, p. 46.

Quill & Quire, February 1997, p. 44; February 1998, p. 33.


Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2001.

Carol Brennan