Toronto / February 2019
"They Tried to Bury Us/They didn’t know we were seeds."
- Mexican saying
"What did you not do to bury me/But you forgot that I was a seed?"
- Greek poet, Dinos Christianopoulous
Albert Jackson had a new stamp made in his image and released in time for African/Black History month, 2019. Toronto’s, and Canada’s, first Black mail carrier, this recognition of the contributions of Black folks to early Toronto, Ontario and Canada’s history is long overdue.
African Canadian Communities waited in great anticipation for the unveiling of Canada’s new ten dollar bill last year. For the first time, there would be a Black Canadian on our money. The choice of Viola Desmond was an inspired one, sparking a new interest in the history and activism of African Canadians, narratives that have been erased over the decades.
Canadian children of all ethno-racial backgrounds are much more conversant with the stories of African Americans like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. These are the stories that are shared across the land in schools from elementary to post-secondary as February rolls around. And while these stories are important in the over-arching narrative of the African diaspora, they are not specifically our Canadian stories of resistance and contributions. Stories of Viola Desmond who years before Rosa Parks resisted segregation on buses, refused to be relegated to the worst seats in a movie theatre in Nova Scotia reserved for Black people. She was arrested and charged. It is only recently she received a posthumous ‘pardon’ for standing her ground, resisting laws that rendered her and her people second class, less than.
At the annual Ontario Black History Society brunch a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of the activism of people like Bromley Armstrong and Dan Hill, Sr. who worked to create the Ontario Human Rights Commission; Mary Ann Shadd who became one of the first women (and first Black woman) publisher in North America, putting out the weekly newspaper “The Provincial Freeman”, starting in March 1853.
There are many more stories like these - Black women and men who were active in trade unionism (The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), immigration reform (a group led by Bromley Armstrong and others are credited with advancing Canada’s immigration point system as a first step towards ‘colour-blind’ immigration and an attempt to reverse Canada’s Order-in-Council of 1911 that banned immigration of people of African descent), police reform (Black Action Defense Committee) right through to today and the progressive and intersectional resistance movements like Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM-TO).
Last year during a session at the meeting of the National Settlement Council (a joint policy and program shop of federal, provincial and territorial governments, umbrella organizations of immigrant and refugee service providers and other stakeholders concerned with Canada’s immigration citizenship and refugee determination regime) there was a presentation on the draft revised citizenship guide. At the conclusion of the presentation I raised the issues of the erasure of African Canadians, the absence of any mention of the history of the enslavement of people of African descent, the early presence of the loyalists in Nova Scotia or even more present day examples of the presence of Black folks in the Canadian narrative. Suffice to say that the response to my questions was less than satisfactory and greatly frustrating. But what stood out for me a year later was the surprise expressed by an Francophone African sister who had been educated in Quebec and worked for the provincial government in that province. At the end of the meeting she came up to me and said, “I googled slavery in Canada while you were speaking… I never knew!”
As I write this, there are many gatherings of Black Canadians happening from coast to coast to coast. In Ontario, the second annual Summit of the Federation of Black Canadians (FBC) with the support of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation is underway in Ottawa. Kuumba, a month of politics, art and resistance has an eclectic array of events bringing thousands to Toronto’s Harbour Front Centre. The annual festival of African-Canadian-Caribbean cultures in Sudbury brings together civil society with academics and government with a great representation of Youth for a night of revelry and learning. And in almost every municipality across Ontario there are teach-ins and celebratory shared meals and a sense of overall good will.
But the tight focus on all things Black/African-Canadian during this one month can’t be all.
This is a political project that must be supported and advanced through symbols like the ones discussed above but also through the adoption of a progressive policy agenda as presented by the FBC and through robust responses to the cries of groups like BLM-TO, Black Action Defense Committee, and others for the elimination of the over-policing of our communities. Other community-based groups are focused on addressing the increasing racialization of poverty, the overrepresentation of our children in the child-welfare system and the stubbornly high rates of drop/pushed out youth from our public school systems. The rarity of Black presence in the leadership of Corporate Canada, the For Public Benefit sector and in electoral politics (Canada’s city with the largest Black population has only one Black Councillor) is an ongoing concern.
Black communities in Toronto have been proactive and persistent in calling for an official response to the above and we see the beginnings of this with the creation of the Confronting Anti-Black Racism secretariat at the City of Toronto.
We saw a similar move at the provincial level with the adoption of antiracism legislation and the creation of an Anti-Racism Directorate which focused on anti-Black racism through one of its four committees. That system, for all intents and purposes has been dismantled, a year after it came into being, due to a change in political leadership of the province.
How fragile our rights.
I guess this is the point of this month’s rant/blog. The annual celebration during February (shortest and coldest my family often remind) is important. What is more important and lasting is undoing the erasure of my people- undoing the burial of our historical and contemporary presence and contribution to this land we call home.
At the Ontario Black History Society brunch referenced above, keynote speaker Dr. Afua Cooper, former James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, called for an apology from the federal government for the enslavement of people of African descent here in Canada.
I echo that call!