It’s a Good Friday

Life has been good to me I have to admit, even though it didn’t appear like it was going to end up that way in the beginning. At three years of age, my parents James Richard and Joanne Marie Tompkins née Farrell divorced. Alcohol was a factor. That same year my Grandma Tompkins, born Isabelle Grace Althea McCarter, died in surgery. Her departure made life more challenging for my immediate and extended Tompkins family. It crushed my Grandpa, George Rick Tompkins.

👑 Isabelle and 👑 George

I became a sickly child with breathing problems, and no one knew why until I was thirteen. From the pictures, it looks like I started out with the right physique for somebody my age. But that changed. I became skinny and stayed short. It was hard for me to keep up. I played soccer competitively in grades two and three but was the goalie.

Neither of my parents’ drinking stopped. Dad had also been a biker, as in gangs, but supposedly gave it up for my arrival to become an Ontario Hydro electrician at the utility’s nuclear plants. The Bruce Nuclear, Pickering and Darlington plants. Sometimes he went to work in the United States as well. My mom, who really liked a good time, was secretary at a moving company and then managed fast food restaurants and convenience stores. My mom and dad both made sure there were books around. But the worst beating I received was for disappearing to the Owen Sound Public Library.

Christmas at Nana and Papa’s house, with Aunt Carmela

Even if they had stayed together, our family wouldn’t have been establishment. We might have reached the Canadian middle class. Mom’s life had been rough at times. Her father, the Irish Catholic quarter of my ancestry, was the merchant marine Ken Farrell who abandoned his wife, my Nana Mary “Mollie” Morra née Coulson, my mom and her younger brother David. One summer the three of them left Ontario on train in search of him and spent at least a summer on one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands. He later lived and died in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside addicted to heroin.

I’m ignorant about my Irish Catholic history despite being baptized Catholic. I know a little about the other Irish quarter but not much. That’s the Coulsons. After my Nana died in 2020, one of her twin brothers Doug, a bank teller early and then media executive, reached out and we started talking. One day he said to me “there are two kinds of Irish in Canada. We’re the British kind.” And there’s an interesting heritage there. My Great Grandfather David Alfred Coulson served in WWI. He was at Vimy Ridge and became a switch man for the Canadian National Railway stationed in Capreol. There’s a street named after him there. He was also Orange Order. He married Edith Hamilton, who Nana said was also from the Harris tractor clan. But that’s only another quarter of my own ancestry.


There is a book by the late history professor Noel Ignatiev, the co-founder of the journal Race Traitor, that I highly recommend to my Black and Irish contacts, and anyone else really. It’s titled How the Irish Became White. Stephen Regoczei, my first book publisher, and favourite undergraduate professor, recommended it to me like he recommended so many other important books.

Professor Stephen Regoczei organizing and clearing out some of his 10,000 books at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario

On the first page of this important non-fiction text, there’s a quote by UMass, Amherst’s W.E.B. Du Bois Department late professor John Bracey. “[F]rom time to time a study comes along that truly can be called ‘path breaking,’ ‘seminal,’ ‘essential,’ a ‘must read.’ How the Irish Became White is such a study.” What would I say? African and Irish descendants in British North America had more in common than they have differences. If you’re Canadian, you should know more about the Irish. They can be considered Canada’s largest immigrant agglomeration even if public school history doesn’t want to talk about it. During the Baby Boom and Generation X eras, Ontario’s schools offered ten or eleven languages in addition to English and French but no Irish. Why? There was intentional cultural suppression. Really? Yes.

If you looked at me, especially after another dark and cold Canadian winter, it’s likely you wouldn’t know I’m Black. But you might. Had you chosen to make something of that early on, like my elementary school friend Marco did, it would have surprised me. Walking in an empty Carling neighbourhood field in London, Ontario, my other Hillcrest classmates Mike and Richard were discussing their British and Dutch ancestries. Marco was Italian, yes. But I knew not of where I came from at that time. Then just like that, Marco looked at me confidently and said “Oh, you’re a moulie.” I wasn’t offended. Marco didn’t mean any offence, but I didn’t know what a moulie was. Neither did Mike or Richard. I didn’t think in that way, simply had relatives with darker skin and lighter skin. That’s just how it was. Race wasn’t the subject of conversations I was invited to, but I quickly and independently discovered this weird concept.

If I had ordered one of those 23andMe reports, like my first cousin Jennifer did, I would have found that only about a quarter of my genes are Sub-Saharan African, mostly West African but also Congolese and Southern East African. African Americans typically have some European ancestry. Likewise my Grandma Isabelle was a McCarter, from a “son of Arthur,” and part Scottish. But culturally I was mostly Black, then became more Black. Early I was into Grandpa’s Jazz and R&B more than mom or dad’s Rock. But I liked the 80’s as well, even the Canadian kind. I saw Platinum Blonde at Hamilton Place in the summer before grade six, but also I went out and bought my own 45 of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s Parents Just Don’t Understand. I memorized it. Nana, my white grandmother, took me to see Purple Rain at Owen Sound’s Roxy Theatre. Electric. I watched basketball, not hockey. Both MJs were my idols. I was a breakdancer. Perhaps most importantly, Grandpa Tompkins’ house was a comfortable refuge.

When life went off the rails for me, there could be mysterious course corrections. And there was “Auntie Care,” Carolyn Isobel Tompkins, my dad’s sister. This steady and giving corporate computing wizard for Black Clawson-Kennedy, veteran of St. John Ambulance and the Owen Sound Folk Society, photographer and genealogist was my Sunday school teacher and Grandpa’s resident caregiver until he died.

A young Aunt Carolyn with my dad Jim (right) and his buddy Bill Green. Courtesy of Cousin Beverly Ann Metzger-Noble.

If I can claim to have had even a partial moral upbringing, Carolyn was chiefly responsible. Initially it came from her classes, and then the many stays under her supervision at Grandpa’s house in Owen Sound. At Christmas, in the summer, whenever my parents had other activities they were involved with. It’s also because of Carolyn’s extensive genealogical database, and Grandpa’s stories, that it’s possible for me to write detailed personal history that extends back before my own time.