Black Canadian author Lawrence Hill once wrote, “Have we read our own authors such as Dionne Brand, Afua Cooper and George Elliott Clarke? Do we know that the story of African Canadians spans 400 years, and includes slavery, abolition, pioneering, urban growth, segregation, the civil rights movement and a long engagement in civic life?”
For most of my educational experience in Canada, Black history has largely been a lesson in US history. For the one month that Black history was covered in my elementary and high school classrooms each year, it would often revolve around slavery in the US, Jim Crow segregation laws, and figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Although the discussion would sometimes shift to contemporary debates about police brutality and racial stereotypes, these subjects were almost always grounded within the US context. What little I did learn about Canada’s Black history was framed around myths of Canada’s benevolence and tolerance.
Through discussions of the Underground Railroad and the freedom provided to Black Loyalists who fought alongside the British during the American Revolutionary War of 1775–1783 and the War of 1812, Canada was depicted as a ‘safe haven’ for enslaved and free Black people escaping the racial terrors of the US.
What was excluded from this benevolent narrative, however, was Canada’s racist past.
From slavery and racial segregation, to discriminatory immigration laws that prevented Black settlement and the general acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan in the twentieth century, Canada’s early relations with its Black settlers were not as friendly as they were made out to be.
From as early as the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century, Black and Indigenous people were enslaved in New France and British North America. Although slavery was not as widespread in pre-Confederation Canada as it was in the US, nor was it as crucial to the functioning of Canada’s economy, enslaved persons were still subjected to violence and degrading treatment by their owners. Many enslaved Black people fled to the free territories in the northern US to escape the harsh realities of enslaved life in Canada.
Following the formal abolition of slavery in 1834, Black people continued to be treated as second-class citizens in Canadian society. In addition to their social and economic marginalization, Black people were subjected to legal and informal segregation in education, housing, health care, employment, and the military to name a few sectors. Black people were also barred from various public facilities across the country.
For example, in Dresden, Ontario, Black residents were prohibited from eating at restaurants, frequenting the vast majority of pool halls, and getting their hair cut or styled at barbershops and the one beauty salon in the city. In 1949, Dresden residents even “voted [in a municipal referendum] by a margin of five to one against a proposed bylaw” that would ban racial and religious discrimination in restaurants in the community.
It was not until this year, my final year as an undergraduate student, that I was able to learn most of the information above. With the help of U of T courses on Black Canadian studies and Canadian immigration, ethnicity, and crime, I have been able to gain a better understanding of Canada’s hidden history of systemic racism and anti-Blackness.
However, Canada’s Black history is not just negative. Indeed, the contributions of Black changemakers to Canadian society such as the Honourable Jean Augustine and the late Harry Gairey Sr. give cause for celebration. Their actions, along with the efforts of countless other Black activists, have paved the way for future generations of Black Canadians to be recognized and accepted as full citizens.
Gairey Sr. took his fight against racial discrimination to Toronto’s City Council in 1945 after learning that his son was denied entry to a Toronto skating rink because he was Black. His actions influenced the passage of an anti-discrimination bylaw in 1947 that prohibited discrimination against racialized people wanting to use the recreational or amusement facilities in Toronto.
Augustine, who became the first Black woman to be elected to the Parliament of Canada in 1993, is responsible for the official recognition of February as Black History Month by the Canadian government. She continues to devote herself to social justice advocacy and racial equity in education.
As I reflect on my educational experience in Canada, it baffles me that I was unaware of the Black historical presence in this country until recently.
Canada’s Black history is not the US’ Black history.
Nor is Canada’s Black history just for Black people.