By Jordan Wellwood and Dr. Nicolas Bussard
If you think Black history isn’t Canadian history, think again.
In a community with a relatively small number of Black residents, it would be easy to let Black History Month pass without pausing to think about the experience of our Black neighbours and their ancestors. If we are committed to inclusiveness and understanding, however, it’s worth taking time to explore some of the things that weren’t included in our history classes.
For instance, as Canadians we like to believe that we don’t have a legacy of Black slavery, but in fact thousands of Africans were brought to Canada as slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, and slavery was practised for 200 years by traders and colonists.
We also like to celebrate our role in bringing tens of thousands of slaves from the American South to freedom via the Underground Railroad, but we often overstate our role, overlooking the support that Indigenous People provided as well as the sheer determination of those fleeing.
In fact, Canada’s history of Black immigration (sometimes forced) is complex, nuanced, political, and worth further reading. For example, the British offered freedom and land to slaves who would fight for the Loyalists during the U.S. War of Independence, a calculated military decision rather than an altruistic one. Britain didn’t abolish slavery throughout its colonies until 1834, after all.
And Canada’s early Black immigrants were not warmly welcomed; they faced segregation, hostility, competition for jobs, and few of them received the land grants they were promised. The first recorded race riots in North America occurred in Canada, and many Black Canadians returned to the United States or Africa. In 1910, Canada passed an Immigration Act barring races deemed ‘undesirable’, and very few Black people entered Canada in the following decades.
If you are interested in learning more, the CBC has provided a relatively short list of non-fiction books that explore the historical, political, and social context of the experience of Black Canadians: Blank by M. NourbeSe Philip; In the Black by Denham Jolly; Canada in Africa by Yves Engler; The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper; North of the Color Line by Sarah-Jane Mathieu; Queer Returns by Rinaldo Walcott; Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard; and Viola Desmond’s Canada by Graham Reynolds.
The Book of Negroes, a novel by Lawrence Hill based on a true story, is another engaging read that gives a more Black-centred version of the experience of those who were granted freedom by the British for fighting the Americans.
Black History Month isn’t simply a history lesson, it’s also a celebration — of Black culture and the contributions of Black Canadians to our communities and country.
It is also an acknowledgment that throughout history and today, racialized populations have faced unfair obstacles and systemic discrimination. It is an opportunity to learn more, and to reflect on what it would take to create a truly post-racial society, free from prejudice and racism.
Jordan Wellwood is a resident of the Comox Valley. Wellwood and Nicolas Bussard are each parents to mixed-race children, committed to raising awareness of the issues their children will face as they grow.
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