February marks Black History Month, also called African History Month, a tradition that originated in 1926 and was first acknowledged in Canada in 1978. It was recognized at the federal level in 1995 when Jean Augustine, Canada’s first Black female Member of Parliament, introduced legislation cementing it in Parliamentary consciousness.
Failing to learn and understand Black history is to uphold a system of violence that has oppressed a community of people for hundreds of years. Canada likes to delude itself in saying that it does not have racism ingrained into its history and institutions, often positioning itself as the refuge from the racism of the United States. That is not true; this country was just as much built on slavery, colonialism, and oppression as our neighbours to the South. We don’t learn about it in school – at least, I didn’t – allowing this myth to carry on for those privileged enough to be able to believe it. If the non-Black population can ignore the history of Black people in Canada, we can also ignore the realities present today. Below is an incredibly brief list of events in Black Canadian history:
1628: The first enslaved African, a six-year-old boy, is brought to what is now Canada and given the name Olivier Le Jeune.
1600s-1700s: Multiple declarations from the French and British crowns authorize and encourage the enslavement of Africans in Canada. There is very little regulation regarding the treatment of enslaved people.
1793: The enslavement of Black people is prohibited in Upper Canada, shortly before it was outlawed in the British Empire in 1833.
1815-1865: 10 000 African-Americans come to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
1944: Ontario passes the Racial Discrimination Act prohibiting the publication of discriminatory material, the first province to do so.
1946: Viola Desmond is arrested for sitting in a “white only” section of a theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She is not pardoned until 2010.
1963: Leonard Baithwaite becomes Canada’s first Black member of Parliament, representing Etobicoke, Ontario.
1964-1970: The City of Halifax demolishes Africville and displaces residents following the dubbing of the community as an “American-style ghetto.”
1992: Protestors demonstrating against the acquittal of police officers in the murder of American Rodney King are met with police violence, inciting rebellion on Toronto’s Yonge Street.
2005: Haitian-Canadian Michaëlle Jean is sworn in as Canada’s first Black Governor General.
I want to make it very clear: there is so much that this timeline excludes. For example, the participation, both forced and willing, of Black and formerly enslaved people in the American Civil War, the War of 1812, and World War I. The arrival of Black Loyalists and “freed slaves” in Nova Scotia in the 1770s, only for them to be met with discrimination and abuse, causing 1 200 Black people to leave for Sierra Leone 20 years later. The contributions of figures like Austin Clarke, Donald Oliver, Elijah McCoy, William Hall, and many more. It is important to take Black History Month to make an effort to learn about these elements of history. More important is continuing this learning all year, and allowing it to shape your actions, hopefully moving toward inclusion and equality.