Unpacking Durham: Whiteby

October 12, 2021



Our “Unpacking Durham” series is here to spill the tea, data, knowledge and history behind the cities, towns and municipalities that make up Durham Region. Today, we're unpacking Whitby aka "Whiteby", by breaking down the geographical lingo, racial and gender-based data and uncensored histories of this land - land cared for by many Indigenous nations, and land that we as BIWOC navigate in the aftermath of settler colonialism.

“Whitby” quite literally translates to “White Village” or “White Settlement” in Old Norse. The traditional territory of the Mississauga of Scugog Island First Nation, what we now call Whitb(e)y was named after British towns deemed “White Settlement" during a Danish invasion of Britain. “White Village” is also rumoured to be named in reference to white lighthouses in Whitby, Ontario and Whitby, Yorkshire. 

These lighthouse rumours have not convinced many residents of Durham, Toronto and the GTA, who have emphasized the “White Settlement” translation through the development and colloquial usage of the term “Whiteby” in reference to this Durham municipality. Why call it Whiteby? To quote Urban Dictionary, “because it’s a town full of White people”. Whether settlers or lighthouses were envisaged during the naming process, Whitby Ontario is known as significantly less diverse than its more western counterparts, Ajax and Pickering.

Whitby’s BIPOC population represents only 27.1% of the overall population, with 25.5% classified as part of a “visible minority” group, and 1.6% identified as Indigenous. How has this white settlement managed to maintain a white population of 72.9% while neighbouring the major city with the highest population percentage* of Black residents in the country?

Much like the naming of this town, the racial demographics are not coincidental. Racist preoccupations with the increasing racial diversity in more Eastern cities and towns have broken through the sea of broadcasted images of Canada as a multicultural paradise. Since 2019, posters warning Whitby residents of “European Canadian”descent of their “eminent replacement” by racialized Canadian citizens and residents have been posted on mailboxes periodically throughout Whitby and Brooklin. In one case in February of 2020, anti-Semitic messages on pieces of wood accompanied the posters. During this same month, stickers with white supremacist mottos were also found throughout the town. 

While Whiteby may appear to be a light colloquial term, in practice it has many meanings and uses, ranging from warning to advertisement, and description to storytelling. 

We want to hear from you! What comes to mind when you think of the term ”Whiteby”? Have you heard of or used this term inside or outside of Durham?

* While Ajax has the highest PERCENTAGE of Black residents of a major city in Canada (16%), it has neither the highest population of Black residents generally, nor the highest percentage of Black residents in a community. Preston, Nova Scotia has the highest Black population of any community in the country at over 64%. 

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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