Geoffrey Canada was born on January 13, 1952, to McAlister and Mary Canada in the South Bronx, New York City. His mother was a substance abuse counsellor and his father suffered from chronic alcoholism. His mother raised him and his three brothers in the South Bronx after she divorced his father in 1956.
Growing up poor Canada was raised among the crime, violence and an all-encompassing sense of chaos found in low-income urban neighbourhoods. Yet his mother strongly instilled the value of education in him at an early age. In his teens, Canada was sent to live with his grandparents, both ordained Baptist ministers, in Freeport, Long Island.